It’s super hard not to have internet at your house

Or anyway, it’s hard to be a blogger if you have that.

Hope to catch up on book reviews and blogging soon. I have some stories to tell!

Coffee in foreign countries

Twice in two days I was offered coffee with great pride. These offers set in motion a whole set of standard responses that were required of us – those being offered the coffee – that I did not recognise, or only came to recognise a bit late.

On Friday, I was in a government office in Russia for a meeting. The official we met began the meeting by launching into a long discussion of US and UK cooperation treaties with Russia, where he spoke quickly in Russian. It took me to catch up to the meeting. (Nothing in this paragraph is relevant for the story.)

About an hour into the meeting, a coffee machine perching on a small table against a wall began to do its cleaning operation, flushing water through the espresso-making apparatus, and making me wonder where the water was coming from. I was staring at the cords for some sign of a water-input device, when the official said, “Oh, actually, I didn’t offer you a coffee. Would you like one?”

M., a lawyer in the meeting joked, “Looks like we missed it!”, referring to the stream of water, which had ended by that time. It still makes me smile to myself to think of a coffee machine that makes coffee whenever it wants, rather than when you want to have coffee. And if you want coffee, you have to run up with a little cup. I like the image.

I didn’t really feel like having coffee, and the other woman refused. M. said, “I wouldn’t refuse” and was handed a cup of coffee from the espresso machine, which he drank quickly. We continued with the meeting.

After the meeting, the Russians were led out one exit, and I was led out a few moments later via another exit. As we walked through the halls, the official said, “A lot of people don’t like to be in this corridor.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“They say this is where people were shot.”

“Is it true?” I asked.

“I don’t really believe it.”

He showed me out, and I thanked him for his time. The lawyer and M. were waiting outside my exit, and we stood outside on the Moscow streets, laughing about how proud he must be of the coffee machine – how no one else has this machine, and M. had saved us by saying he wanted coffee.

Saturday morning, D. and I went to a mortgage adviser in London to talk about getting a mortgage – what deposit we needed, what information he needed, etc. He is a quite old man in a small office near my house, and as we sat down he asked his assistant to bring in the milk – but didn’t notice when it was all brought in. When he queried where the coffee was, we pointed it out, and he spoke at length about how “the one thing we pride ourselves on is good coffee”. It was good coffee, made from a cafetière, and I had mine with sugar.

I thought about the books I read as a child that accompanied my American Girl doll, Felicity. The drama of the Boston Tea Party had led everyone to drink coffee instead of tea at the time of her (mythical) life, and I had grown up with coffee everywhere all the time. Not particularly good coffee – coffee like water, even when it was strong. Coffee that stood in for alcohol as the social lubricant in a part of Texas where booze is mostly banned. Coffee that was ubiquitous, and would therefore never be a source of pride – even if you did have good coffee.

That stands in stark contrast to both Britain and Russia. In the former, coffee is now very trendy, and you get good coffee trends from far afield – including flat whites. When I first visited Russia, there were multiple types of Nescafe on the menu, and waitresses took the difference between Nescafe Gold and normal Nescafe seriously. So it’s good to see a coffee Renaissance in both. But it launches coffee into a status symbol – a symbol I am not adept at reading.

More Nabokov things to read

This is from the intriguingly titled article “Is Humbert Humbert Jewish?”, a review about one book I have (Brian Boyd), one I mentioned on this blog last week and two by Nabokov himself.

I haven’t read it, but look forward to doing so this afternoon.

 

And then, there was this mention of an amusing exchange between writer Claire Messud and an interviewer, where she asks, “Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert?” He’s (Humbert’s) doing well this week in the press.

I also need to read this book (When Women Were Birds)

There’s a book called When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice by Terry Tempest Williams, and I really need to read it.

I base that mostly on this blog post, but also on all the reviews on Goodreads…

I really need to read this book (Nabokov)

If you don’t know me (and basically none of you do), then you won’t know that I am completely obsessed with Nabokov. I am in a weird place with my relationship with him right now because I re-read Lolita, and I am not sure it does all the things I previously thought it did.

Despite that, anything about Nabokov grabs my attention. So I really need to read this: The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov.

And! This interview in Playboy.

Lots to do.

Review: Brief Encounters with the Enemy by Said Sayrafiezadeh

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I got this book free through NetGalley, and I am sort of struggling with what to write here. I enjoyed reading the stories – they have a bit of Wells Tower and George Saunders in them – but I didn’t think that they had anything really special to them.

He writes on three themes repeatedly in this collection: war (and people who fight in them), people who are sort of failures after high school, and people who fill in spreadsheets in boring jobs. But he seems to write about these somewhat flatly, and it made me think he has no experience in any of these key themes. Specifically, while I was reading, I thought to myself, “This is a person who has not been to war and who has not spent much time with spreadsheets”, which of course is fine… unless you want to write about war and spreadsheets. I haven’t been to war either, but I wonder what people who have think of this book.

That said, some of the writing is good and most of the stories flow well. Some of the characters are done really well, particularly the foreign ones (an illegal immigrant, for example, in “Paranoia”). The women are not as strong of characters – mostly nonexistent but otherwise relegated to supporting roles.

In general, I felt that these stories are somewhat mundane examples of the short story genre, and not really excellent. But I will check out more stories when I see them, in case I change my mind.

Susan Steinberg excerpt…

Maybe I’m just so obsessed with Wittgenstein’s Mistress that I see it everywhere, but this does seem to borrow from the style, no?

Excerpt here.