Sixth book of 2018: Ernest Hemingway – A Farewell to Arms

I have a strange relationship to Hemingway. The first book I read of his was The Old Man and the Sea. I thought the story to be incredibly boring, yet somehow I read the whole thing really quickly. I remember it not being very long?

In any case, it was years until I read another one of his books. I must have been in my mid-twenties when a friend gave me Death in the Afternoon to read. I am not a fan of bullfighting. I think it’s an incredibly cruel and heartless way to torture an animal. But I appreciated reading the book and when I did, I was captivated by it. Hemingway was able to describe the fascination of the spectacle in such an interesting way that I understood the fascination.

A Farewell to arms is, therefore, the third Hemingway book that I read.

I believe that the book is somewhat autobiographical in nature. The book takes place at the Austrian-Italian frontier during the First World War. The main protagonist is an American that volunteered in the Italian army as an ambulance driver. All this matches Hemingway’s biography.

The book is significantly less about front-line warfare than I would have anticipated. It seems that most of the actual narrative takes place away from the front. To me, that was very much a good thing.
The novel is described as a “love story of immense drama”. And once you read it whole you will understand.

The scenes of the war itself don’t appear to be so brutal than they are often depicted in war movies. They are incidents, sporadic, when individuals get shot or the hero himself has to shoot, run, escape or otherwise avoid the dangers of the story’s journey. But it is secondary in nature.

What the book describes so well is the comradeship between the enlisted. Even the American volunteer, a lower officer by rank, it seems, is respected and held in high regard by his fellow soldiers. More than once they declare their love for their “Tenente” (Italian for Lieutenant). At this point, I have to admit, I don’t remember the heroes name. I will continue to refer to him as “he” or “the main protagonist”.

Quite early into the book, he meets an English nurse that works in the nearby hospital. The war is slow moving and, after making her acquaintance, he gets to see her almost every day. I believe the book mentions that she’s younger than him. She also lost her fiance in the war. Relationships were different at that time, I believe they were engaged, but they weren’t really close to one another. Still, she suffered from his death and feels a tremendous loss in her heart. They quickly become romantically linked, even though she tries to hide their relationship from her colleagues in the hospital and he’s not too forthcoming to his colleagues in the army.

The book was incredibly gripping to me. It was tense at many points, almost hair-raising. But what makes it such a great story is the love between them. You feel their love is honest and sincere and he goes to length to do what is right by her and she follows him through the difficulties described in the book. Both their conduct is admirable.

Fifth book of 2018: Arthur C. Clarke – The City And The Stars

It was always my intention to read a bit of Arthur C. Clarke. I was especially interested in the novel “Childhood’s End”, but I couldn’t get that one when I was in Waterstone’s.
I instead decided to buy two other novels of his: “A Fall of Moondust” and, the novel I read recently, “The City and the Stars”.

I read the Ishigoru book before and I would say that, although a different writing style, the books are of equal difficulty. It’s an easy read.

I enjoyed The City and the Stars even though it described a world that is pretty unfathomable to me and I did not ever really identify with the main protagonist, Alvin.
Alvin, btw., was the only name that seems “normal” by today’s standards and I am aware that the story was written in the 50’s. Most other names seem somewhat “futuristic”.

The City in the novel is the last city of mankind, Diaspar, surrounded by desert on an otherwise barren planet earth. No oceans, no trees, no wildlife or flora. The Stars refers to a set of stars that man once inhabited for the novel takes place millions and millions of years into the future. Mankind “lost” access to the stars, so it appears, when they had to surrender in a war against some alien beings, also millions of years ago. It was so long ago, that no one can remember the aliens or the war, only that the stars and everything outside the city of Diaspar is forever off-limits to everyone in it. The alien victors, called Invaders, drove mankind to its last refuge before settling on peace and for mankind never to leave the city again.
In Diaspar, life is comfortable but controlled. People live for tens of thousands of years at a time and when they do die, their memories – or some of them – are returned to a giant database to be returned after many thousands of years into another body for yet another go at life in the city of Diaspar. It is said that a million lifetimes wouldn’t be enough to discover all the city had to offer.

I think, what makes the novel so readable is the anticipation of solutions to immediate obstacles or mysteries in Alvin’s path. You know he’s special from the other inhabitants of Diaspar, you know he wants to leave the city, you know that everything he encounters will have its usefulness in the next few pages. Without giving too much away, the book obviously deals with what’s left on Planet Earth and, of course, how and why mankind lost the stars and you discover so much more.It is a relaxing and entertaining read and I got through the book in about two weeks.

As a next book, I picked something that I thought would be a little more demanding: A Farewell to Arms, by Ernest Hemingway.

Fourth book of 2018: Kazou Ishiguro – The Buried Giant

I picked up The Buried Giant amongst some other books on a recent trip to Waterstones. Partly because I have heard of him yet never read or seen a movie adaptation of his works, partly because the book was ordained with praises:

  • The No. 1 Sunday Times Bestseller
  • Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature
  • A deeply affecting portrait of marital love (Guardian)
  • A beautiful, heart-breaking book (Observer)

I could mention another four such quotes on the back of the cover.

I guess, by first justifying why I bought the book, I already allude to not being a big fan of it.

The Buried Giant

It was entertaining and relatively easy to read, I got through more than half of it in one single day, but I don’t agree fully with calling it a masterpiece or one that is a deeply affecting portrait of marital love. While the portrait of love is cute and you get that Ishiguro wanted to emphasise on the unconditional love of Axl and Beatrice, there is a little to explain where that love actually came from. That, sadly, makes it no more valid or true than the love one can feel for a pet or a thing. I wasn’t taken by this. We all loved someone at some point, I get that. The backside of the book says that “…they cannot yet foresee how their journey will reveal to them dark and forgotten corners of their love for one another…” and while it’s true some aspects of their relationship are revealed, it isn’t really what carries the story.

I also wasn’t quite prepared for the fantasy elements in the book. It draws on quite a bit of folklore (the famous King Arthur mystery (complete with Merlin the wizard, I might add)) and also adds a few fantasy creatures to the narrative. Ogres, dragons, and suddenly pixies appear for no good reason other than wanting to have a somewhat easy to overcome and non-human foe appear in the story. All this feels a bit forcibly construed.

The appearance of other protagonists and how they meet or interact feels overly serendipitous. One has to hold ones head and go: ‘Hey, what a weird and unbelievable coincidence!’

Axl and Beatrice are leaving their village behind, to seek the village of their lost son and as they are no longer very appreciated in their community on account of getting too old. This journey, about a four day foot march to their destination, is the central plot device. When they talk with one another, they use a lot of subsentences that often seem redundant to what they intend to say. I don’t mind complex sentence, but these seem needlessly complex. Although their son, if he so exists – one cannot be sure as the story evolves, has no idea of their coming, they often talk as if he is, in fact, awaiting them there. No, he’s not. He certainly isn’t. While it seems likely the long lost son would be glad to see his parents, there’s no reason to assume he’s awaiting them. There’s no reason to assume he’s in a position to offer them accommodation or that he is still in that village four days from them. This all seems like massive shortfalls in terms of storyline to me.

Spoiler alert:
At one point quite early into the story, the heroes meet an elderly woman who talks about a ferryman that shipped her husband to an island, tricking her to stay behind. She is not allowed to follow him anymore and they couldn’t make the journey together because the boat was too small. It seemed, at the time I read it, like a parable of a dying partner. At the time I read this passage, it seemed so obvious that they too will make this journey to that island, that they too will be separated. And guess what…

I have no issues with tragedies. In fact, I am a big fan. But what makes a good tragedy is that the protagonists could be aware of their impending tragedy and that they still have no other choice than to follow down the path that leads to the tragic end. I had no such feelings here.

So no, I did not like The Buried Giant and I will be cautious to read more of Ishiguro. Maybe I will watch this “Never Let Me Go” movie…

I have decided to read The City In The Stars, by Arthur C. Clarke next. It’s not the A. C. Clarke book that I wanted to have, but it shall give me an intro to his writing. The actual book I wanted to have is Childhood’s End – as it has inspired a Pink Floyd song that I care very much about.

Third book of 2018: F. Scott Fitzgerald – Tender Is The Night

Last month I finished two books, Tender Is The Night being the first of them. I had a bit of help in form of a holiday that I used not only to go SCUBA diving and watching late night hotel TV but to also read The Buried Giant (Kazuo Ishiguro). A five-hour flight also helped and I read over 200 pages on the return flight alone.

But onto Tender Is The Night:

Tender Is The Night

I found it a bit harder reading than the previous book I read, maybe because of the somewhat turgid way of Fitzgerald’s writing. But I actually enjoyed the novel, a tragedy at that. It took me a while to come around to it, but there were parts that I found quite exciting whilst others were never really dull. I guess Fitzgerald describes a certain society. I don’t think that “ordinary people” are really his forte and so I cannot really read it without silently scoffing at the issues presented of these rich, affluent and beautiful people that do not have to concern themselves with worldly issues, such as working.

The story is about the marriage of the Divers, Nicole and Dick, who also have two children. The children, however, do only play a peripheral role in the story. They tend to not be seen or heard. The first act, or book, is actually written from the point of Rosemary, who comes into the Divers lives as they are living in a villa overlooking the French Riveria. She’s overcome by their sophistication, their splendour and their ability to be exquisite party hosts. She is particularly infatuated with Dick and being a (just turned) 18-year-old Hollywood starlet, she has little trouble to awake feelings in Dick.

The rest of the novel, book two and three, is mainly written from Dick’s perspective, he becomes the main protagonist and the novel jumps a bit back and forth in time in relation to the events of the first book.

What eventually captured me was the ultimate downfall of the Divers, Dick in particular. Without going too much into the detail of the story and spoil it, Dick is a very talented and admired doctor. He is a psychiatrist. The events that unfold as a result of his indiscretion with Rosemary are believable, sad and have all elements of a classic Greek tragedy. It’s masterfully written, in my opinion. And I did get very emotionally distraught by the end of the book.

It is described as “a tragedy backlight by beauty” and so it is. I can very much recommend this read.

Second book of 2018: Hubert Selby Jr – Last Exit To Brooklyn

I finished Last Exit To Brooklyn, by Hubert Selby Jr., a few weeks ago by now. I am well into Tender Is The Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I actually enjoyed reading the book quite a bit and there were a few situations where I thought the book was hard to put down. Here’s a picture:

There is not a single main protagonist and all characters described in detail are practically anti-heroes. The book deals with a number of stories, each focusing on a single individual or a group of people and all these protagonists, the reader learns, are somehow connected with one another. One story sometimes begins were another ends or the same characters appear in different stories, yet each story is in itself conclusive.

The characters are simple people, ordinary workers, bar patrons, wives and transvestites. Many display a low moral code, cheat, lie or otherwise take advantage of others and one another. There is a fair amount of quite graphic descriptions of drug use, sex and violence. In some cases, it’s borderline pornographic and sometimes even that threshold gets crossed.

I guess I enjoyed reading this book more than the last is that I find the characters more believable. I see their problems and the way they struggle through life more convincing than the musings of the university professors. And while the protagonists don’t deal or overcome their problems – there’s no catharsis – the book makes you feel their emotions and take part in their lives.

What is also quite remarkable about the book is the style it is written in. Huber Selby didn’t think much about punctuation, spelling, let alone capitalisation. There’s nothing to indicate when somebody starts speaking, no quotation marks and words that should be spelt separately are joined and misspelt. The author also uses a lot of profanity and slang, slang which probably was more common for the time it was written in. Some words, or rather their meanings, is occasionally hard to guess. But I think this makes the book more enjoyable to read to me. I feel like I learn something more and I am part of the time it takes place.

Last Exit To Brooklyn is, all in all, very enjoyable to read, IMHO.

So I’m already in the last quarter of Tender Is The Night and I hope to finish it before I’m going away to Israel. It is a good read, I enjoy it more than Eating People Is Wrong, although the content is much harder to understand and to read through than Last Exit To Brooklyn.
I’ll follow up with my comments on it shortly…

First book of 2018: Malcolm Bradbury – Eating People is Wrong

So, making a New Year’s resolution with my colleague this year, we said we would read at least 12 this year. A month in, she’s ahead. Damn!

I am glad, however, I finished Malcolm Bradbury’s Eating People is Wrong. I didn’t enjoy it very much. I did enjoy the title though and I believe Amazon’s suggestions are to blame for me buying it.

This is how it looks:

eating people is wrong, by malcolm bradbury
Eating People is Wrong – or is it?

The book’s a moderately challenging read, because of the sentence structure and the fact that Malcolm carries on a bit. The main character, Stuart Treece, Professor of English literature by trade, struggles coming to terms with what, I guess, he describes as the human condition. He also becomes aware of his “middle-agedness” and at some point yearns for love. Actually, he falls in love with one of his students working on her Phd – notably – after having an affair with her first.

The characters are believable, yet alien to me. The book describes a Central England location in the 50s and a society I’m glad to not have witnessed. These were times of a rigid class-systems, racism, casual racism and stricter gender expectations by society. Don’t get me wrong, in no way is Bradbury endorsing any of such. The main protagonist is emancipated. I merely point out that I wouldn’t have liked it there very much – what with my liberal upbringing and that.

The previous book I read was Stoner by John Williams. I enjoyed it more, it made me melancholic. I do not know if this book produced much in form of emotions. Much like when I read Crime and Punishment and all I felt was irritation with Raskolnikoff. So much so, I couldn’t even feel very sorry for Sofya.

The next book I will read is Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr. Described as “hellish and obscene” and banned in Britain in 1967, it promises to be a joyride compared to this.

LibreOffice – concatenate a string with seperator (Google Sheets join)

if you’re in need to join a list of strings with a separator, you can create this custom function in your sheet:
Function STRJOIN(range, Optional delimiter As String, Optional before As String, Optional after As String)
    Dim row, col As Integer
    Dim result, cell As String
    result = ""
    If IsMissing(delimiter) Then
        delimiter = ","
    End If
    If IsMissing(before) Then
        before = ""
    End If
    If IsMissing(after) Then
        after = ""
    End If
    If NOT IsMissing(range) Then
        If NOT IsArray(range) Then
            result = before & range & after
            For row = LBound(range, 1) To UBound(range, 1)
                For col = LBound(range, 2) To UBound(range, 2)
                    cell = range(row, col)
                    If cell <> 0 AND Len(Trim(cell)) <> 0 Then
                        If result <> "" Then
                            result = result & delimiter
                        End If
                        result = result & before & range(row, col) & after
                    End If
        End If
    End If
    STRJOIN = result
End Function

set this up by selecting: tools > macros > organise macros > libreoffice basic …
you can choose where to save the macro to the sheet, the application or others.

list of all eBay categories and eBay category ids

it’s strange that a company like eBay doesn’t make it easy for sellers to get the resources they need. have you tried getting a complete list of all eBay categories? maybe with the eBay category tree? – you will find that there’s not a convenient download location, albeit there should be!

the “trick” so I’ve learned is to get it yourself.

here is a very short python script that will get your categories:

#! /usr/bin/env python
import tools as t
import xmltodict as xml
import requests
url = '{}&siteid={}&CategoryID={}&version=729&IncludeSelector=ChildCategories'
app_id = 'XXXX' #get your own eBay app id
site_id = '3' # 3 is UK
to_get = [-1] # start at the top
done = []
categories = {}
if __name__ == "__main__":
    while len(to_get) > 0:
        cid = to_get.pop()
        re = requests.get(url.format(app_id, site_id, cid))
        root = xml.parse(re.text)
        cats = root['GetCategoryInfoResponse']['CategoryArray']['Category']
        for cat in cats:
            if cat['CategoryID'] not in categories:
                print(cat.get('CategoryName', 0))
                c = {'category_id': cat.get('CategoryID', 0),
                    'category_level': cat.get('CategoryLevel', 0),
                    'category_name': cat.get('CategoryName', 0),
                    'category_parent_id': cat.get('CategoryParentID', 0),
                    'leaf_category': cat.get('LeafCategory', 0),
                    'category_name_path': cat.get('CategoryNamePath', 0)}
                categories[cat['CategoryID']] = c
            if cat['CategoryID'] not in done  and cat['LeafCategory'] == 'false' :
    with open('eBay_categories.tsv', 'w', encoding="utf-8") as of:
        for k,v in categories.items():
            of.write(str(v['category_id']) + "t" + str(v['category_level']) + "t" + str(v['category_name']) + "t" + str(v['category_parent_id']) + "t" + str(v['leaf_category']) + "t" + str(v['category_name_path']) + "n")
the above will then create a tab-delimited text file named ‘eBay_categories.tsv’.
please note you will need both the “requests” and the “xmltodict” modules. they can be easily obtained using pypi. this code is python 3

Things I hate about Mac OSX

From my experience, these things are really annoying when it comes to the Apple Mac OS

  • Non-standard keyboard shortcuts
    having used windows, apple macintosh (many years ago) and linux systems for most of my life and used certain standard keyboard shortcut combinations (ctrl+x, ctrl+c, return, delete or backspace), it is infuriating to see that mac at some point must have thought that it’s wise to deviate from everyone else and therefore make their computers more difficult to use.
  • there is no standard programme to open archives – not even zip
    the standard is to unzip an archive. other than in the command line, there doesn’t seem to be a way of looking what’s inside a zip file. you have to extract it, then delete it. pointless.
    not only that, but zip is really the only thing supported, so you end up installing a different archive manager for tar balls, rar, 7z or any other files.
  • the decision to not support ntfs or fat32 or other file systems out of the box, but just their own journaling file system and exfat
  • you cannot cut and paste into the file browser “finder”.
this list will grow over time

An easy way to enable VNC in Ubuntu 14.04

i’ve struggled today for a few hours to get XDMCP connections running on my new tv server. in the end i posted on a few forums and gave up. a bit frustrating!

but i still didn’t want to leave my seat without having any ability to log into my server without gui, so i opted for a simple vnc server solution:

  1. you need to have the gnome-session-flashback package installed through apt-get
  2. you need to log into at least one session that is a gnome (fallback) one.
  3. go to applications > system tools > preferences > desktop sharing
and that solves the problem. you must have at least one desktop session running, logged into Gnome-flashback and this user must have the connection allowed.