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Archive for June, 2010

Another reading choice influenced by Stephen R Donaldson (not actually one of his recommendations, but one he’s mentioned on his gradual interview). This novel is a fantasy written back in the 1920s, which makes its author a contemporary of people like Lovecraft and Howard. However, like the somewhat earlier The Well at the World’s End by William Morris (yes, the wallpaper man), it’s written in a quasi-archaic style. It’s full of thees and thous and eres (“ere” meaning “before”) and lots of obscure vocabulary. I think the writing here is more deliberately Shakespearean than Morris’s work. As a result, it’s hard going reading it – for me, the experience was much slowed by my desire to note down all the unusual words so I can post them here as part of my lexicon project. Here are a few examples:

“At last, ” murmured Lessingham, “at last, Lord Juss!”
“Little art thou to blame,” said the martlet, “for this misprision, for scarce could a lordlier sight have joyed thine eyes.”

And he took a phial of crystal containing a decoction of wolf’s jelly and salamander’s blood, and dropped seven drops from the alembic into the phial and poured forth that liquor on the figure of the crab drawn on the floor.

“Mark with what ridiculous excess he affecteth Demonland in the great store of jewels he flaunteth, and with what an apish insolence he sitteth at the board. Yet this lobcock liveth only by our sufferance”

As the critic, Orville Wright notes in his introduction to the book, the story is introduced via the device of a man who goes into some sort of trance or astral journey and who observes the events unfold – a device that is completely unnecessary and can be totally ignored. It’s not even really a framing device as it doesn’t crop up again at the end.

The story concerns the war between the Demons of Demonland and the Witches of Witchland. These names are only names, as all the characters are human. The Demons are the heroes and are not at all demonic. The story spans a few years of quest and conquest.

The Demon lords travel into the heart of a great mountain range to recover one of their own, climbing the greatest peaks in the world in a matter of days, with seemingly little in the way of special clothing or equipment. When all their forces have been destroyed by the Witches they still manage to gather a mighty army to avenge themselves. It’s all a bit silly, looked at in the harsh light of modern realism, but the story is a romance in the medieval sense of the word. It’s supposed to be full of epic deeds expounded with flowery verbosity.

The biggest problem with the story, even if you don’t mind its language, is its slowness. Maybe I had an exaggerated sense of this, with the speed at which I read the book, but events seem to move pretty slowly. It’s also written in such a way that you don’t engage with the characters or the action much. And the heroes are seemingly invincible.

One good thing is how the narrative is divided between the different sides. The Witches have a lot of page time, as do a number of female characters (although less so), even though they are less important to the story. One character in particular was quite interesting. Lord Gro is a Goblin who has defected to the Witches, and who later defects to the Demons; his third defection, in the heat of battle is the cause of his death. I felt that his end was too abrupt and didn’t do him justice.

The end of the story was strange (I don’t usually give spoilers like this in my reviews, but this is an old book and it’s an important part of how the story should be understood). The Demons win through and defeat the Wtiches – although more through the Witches’ self-destruction that through their own might and main. Then, while the Demons are bemoaning the fact that they have no worthy foes left to battle, and because of the Witch King’s special power, the story resets back to the beginning. Hence the theme of the Worm Ouroboros, the serpent that eats its own tail.

All in all, not so easy to read, not so easy to take seriously, but not so bad. It’s good to stretch one’s mental muscles with something new. The epic sweep of the story, the archaic diction and the small amount of magic on display all brought their own pleasure.

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Back home

Habiba and I are back at home now, and not terribly happy about it. Habiba, of course, wants to be with her father; I would rather not have to get up at around 7:30 every day to go to a job that is not at all strenuous, but still manages to be very tiring. Some time ago I promised myself I would never do a nine-to-five office job again. Somehow I forgot about that last year. At least I can’t complain about the remuneration.

Habiba’s dad is still hanging in there, but, while he isn’t getting much worse, there have been a series of problems that seem to be holding his recovery back. His kidneys weren’t so good for a while, then he had a fever; the latest news is that he has some bad bed sores. None of these seem to have been major problems, but they’re frustrating.

Habiba calls her mother every morning and night (Korean time; New York is 13 hours behind, so the times of day are reversed for her parents) to check in. If it weren’t for internet telephony I’m sure there’s a good chance Habiba wouldn’t have returned to Korea.

I’ve been feeling emotionally crappy since we got back. The other night I tried to tell Habiba what I was feeling. I talked about how stressful the visit to America was for me, how fed up I am at work and that I kind of wanted to kick it all in and go travelling, escape from responsibility for a while. Habiba was devastated.

She thought I wanted to abandon her and go my own way. I thought I was more just venting, thinking aloud. We sorted it out, and I’m feeling a lot happier today. Making up was nice – and there wasn’t even any sex involved.

On Monday I went to see The A-Team with Zach. It was surprisingly good. Even though it was a very beefed up, contemporary action movie and it was more of an A-Team Begins type of story, it was pretty true to the TV series. That said, it brought it up-to-date in various ways – especially in terms of action and special effects. There was lots of humour, and it didn’t take itself too seriously. Liam Neeson was great as Hannibal, although he looked weird with grey hair; and I’ve never really noticed what an unusual profile he has.

One favourite moment involved the bad guy, a CIA agent, in a car, watching a live feed from a bomber that was bombing the A-Team’s supposed location. After the explosion had blossomed on the screen he said, ‘It’s just like Call of Duty‘.

Today, I finished the first draft of the story I’ve been working on the past couple of months. Even while writing it I made notes of changes that need to be made to it. Still lots of work needed before it’s good enough for anyone else to read. I’m very tempted to write a completely different story before I get to work on that task, though – it’s been a slow, gradual slog and I think I need a bit of distance from it.

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Continuing recovery

Habiba’s father has been doing better since his heart attack. It seems like the heart attack had no untoward effects. Yesterday, he had a tracheotomy, a minor operation to put a breathing tube directly into his windpipe through the front of his neck. Previously, this breathing tube was in his mouth, and was naturally not very comfortable.

I’ve spent a bit more time talking to Ramana – taking advantage of the fact that there have been fewer people around lately. Yesterday, we showed him some pictures we took at the Abode and a video of some large windchimes that are fixed to a tree up on the hill on Abode land. Today, I told him a little about my family and my life.

He’s been eager to communicate – which is very difficult for him – and for us, in fact. He has the use of his hands, but – whether because of weakness or medication I’m not sure – he isn’t very co-ordinated. He can shrug and nod and shake his head. He also uses facial expressions, and he’s often very entertaining with them. He can’t speak as such, but he tries to mouth things. He was doing this a lot today, but we had little joy figuring out what he wanted. A lot of the time he wanted water – he’s being sustained intravenously, so his mouth and throat are much underused.

His recovery is slow – there’s still a long way to go, but he’s hanging in there. There are lots of people taking care of him, both physically and emotionally. Outside the Surgical ICU, there’s a sign that says two visitors at a time and close family members only. Ramana has had as many as five visitors at a time, and lots of them are not related to him.

There seemed to be some bad news yesterday when Noorunisa told us that there was a possibility Ramana’s kidneys might fail, and if he went on dialysis it would preclude the possibility of getting a place in a rehabilitation centre. Today’s news is not so bleak; his kidneys, having suffered a little because of his heart attack, are a little better, and it seems that the doctor’s analysis yesterday was a worst-case scenario.

At the moment, Habiba and I are thinking about our plans to get back home. We have a flight from Kennedy Airport at half past midnight on Friday night, which gets us into Korea in the early hours of Sunday morning (it’s a fourteen hour flight and we lose thirteen hours because of the time difference). However, we need to get down to New York City from Albany. We’re going to book some coach tickets, probably Megabus, and Habiba’s sister’s mother will pick us up down there.

We only have one more full day in the States. Our visit hasn’t really been enough: Ramana’s injuries are so serious that any improvement he’s made since we’ve been here still leave him very poorly. It would be good to stay here longer and see him continue to recover, to begin to speak again, to begin his rehabilitation. But, short of quitting our jobs, we don’t have that luxury. Still, we’ve been here at a critical time in his recovery. I’m sure that at first, there would have been little any of his family or friends could have done for him – he was unconscious a lot of the time and recovery from surgery. This period, when he has been conscious and able to perceive and even communicate a tiny bit, has probably been more important because now people can really be there for him, and the emotional support hopefully increases his happiness and aids his recovery.

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I knew that this was a well-known, well-liked book before I started reading it, but I didn’t really know too much about it. It’s the story of Amir, who grows up in Afghanistan before the Taliban, before the Russian invasion, and his relationship with Hasan, a boy who is both friend and servant, belonging to a lower caste racial group. The book spans Amir’s childhood and adulthood and shows his flight from Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation his life in America and his return to his homeland to rescue Hasan’s son.

The story is partly autobiographical (or at least, the background is) and is often very moving. It stretches belief a little – especially where Amir escapes the Taliban with Hasan’s son – but generally maintains the suspension of disbelief. It also highlights a lot of Afghan culture and history and is full of italicised terms in the original language (Persian, I think).

The novel is at its best in the early stages, when Amir is a child living in Kabul with his wealthy, highly respected father. They live in a large house in a well-off area. In a hut in the back garden, live their servant and his son, Hasan. The crux of this part of the book is painful and realistic and sets up the plot and emotional struggles of the rest of the novel. The story loses a little momentum when Amir and his father move to the US, and their difficult relationship mellows. Then there is the far-fetched adventure to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

As a novel, it’s an easy read. It’s solid, journeyman-like mainstream American fiction. The writing is not bad, but nothing special. It’s a tear-jerker, and a mostly successful one, but one that I didn’t warm to greatly. The book moves from one heart-breaking episode to another in a way that isn’t quite manipulative, but is rather simplistic – it’s a bit of a one-trick pony. Another thing I didn’t like is that the narrator, Amir, is always hoping to be a writer and when he submits his first manuscript – it’s accepted. The suspension of disbelief broke for me there.

The Kite Runner is a decent book, but nothing special. I felt that anyone with an ounce of writing skill could have written it. But I didn’t mind reading it, either.

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Intensive care

We’ve been in the States for two or three days, now. The flight over was OK – we slept, got fed a couple of meals. We didn’t realise how strict flights to the US would be and our bottles of water (bought after going through security) got confiscated before we boarded.

At Kennedy Airport, we had to wait half an hour after landing at 9 pm before the 747 docked with a gate. Then we had to wait about two and a half hours in line before Habiba could get through Immigration. I had a few minor problems – I hadn’t been given a visa waiver form on the plane, and then there were only Spanish ones in the Immigration hall. The officer didn’t have any – he told me to see an Asiana representative, but there was no one from the airline around. I filled in most of a Spanish form, but there were some questions on the back that I couldn’t make any sense of. I asked the officer if he could tell me what they were, but he couldn’t. A little while later, talking to another member of staff on the hall floor, the officer came over with an English form for me. When I’d filled it in again and went to see the officer he said, ‘CYA couldn’t translate it for you?’ I had no idea what CYA was. Then it turned out he’d said, ‘See why I couldn’t translate it for you?’ The questions on the back were all about crimes of moral turpitude and things that might stop you getting a visa. I finally got out into the baggage hall at about 12:30am.

Once past Customs, I hooked up with Habiba again and with Carol and Elias. Carol is Habiba’s half-sister’s mother and Ramana’s ex-wife, Elias is her partner. They’d had to wait a long time for us, but they didn’t seem at all put out. They took us to their home, somewhere leafy outside New York city. Once there, Carol, in very Jewish motherly fashion, made sure we had lots of food.

The following morning, Carol drove us up to Albany, which was a ride of about two or three hours. There, we parked in the Albany Medical Center car park and made our way over to the main building, and to the Surgical Intensive Care Unit where Ramana is being treated. Habiba and I had to make sure we cleaned our hands and we wore face masks to go in and see him (Habiba saw a doctor shortly before we left for the airport back in Korea; he diagnosed bronchitis and prescribed five days’ worth of medication. It would seem that I have bronchitis, too, but I haven’t seen a doctor about it; I think it’s getting better now. Anyway, we needed to take extra care not to spread any of our germs).

Habiba was very emotional. We’d heard a lot about her father, but seeing him brought home how poorly he is. I think she was also simply happy to see him. Her mother was also there, along with her half-sister, Erika, and her wife, Bridget (not merely girlfriend, as I said before).

Ramana was (and is) in his own little room in the ward. He was lying in a complex bed, his back propped up at about 30 degrees (there’s a little readout on the side, an arc with a ball bearing showing the angle). His legs were spreadeagle in a strange way, both his feet and lower legs bandaged and braced in different ways. He had a few sensors strapped to his bare chest and a large tube in his mouth, connecting him to a respirator that was helping him breath. Behind the bed was a pillar-like piece of equipment that was a hub for many of the various wires and tubes that were connected to him. At the top was a monitor showing his heartrate and other information. The respirator was separate and stood to the side, its own monitor showing his breathing rate.

Ramana seemed better than the descriptions we’d been getting in Korea. He wasn’t as disoriented or as unhappy as we’d heard. People talked to him and he responded by looking at them, facial expressions, shrugging. I said hello and my mask was removed at a distance so he could see my face.

I felt like a fifth wheel a lot of the time I was there. I don’t know the family very well, and I didn’t know what to say or do. I’m here primarily for Habiba – but I want to show my support with my presence. I was also very tired much of yesterday; Habiba kept hitting me to wake me up (she’s kind like that).

In the evening, after a day spent in and around the SICU and after Carol had gone home, we were driven to the Abode by Erika and Bridget, where Habiba’s parents had been planning to build a new house. It’s about half an hour to an hour away from Albany; the road passes through several very small towns and lots of forest. The Abode is near a place called New Lebanon and seems like th middle of nowhere – apart from people driving to and from the Abode, there is no traffic noise at all (a huge change from Korea).

The place consists of several large, old buildings, plus a few new ones, and was originally, I think, built by Shakers. We were given a room in one of the buildings that serve as accommodation for visitors. The place is all creaky wood and quite chilly, but very pleasant. Although it was cold, it wasn’t too cold and we had a decent night’s sleep. In the morning, we breakfasted in another building that has a large communal kitchen and dining hall. There is a walk-in fridge full of tubs of leftovers and general supplies. Habiba met and hugged and caught up with people she knows and who know her parents. I said hello a lot.

Also on the Abode is a farm and a mountain – which latter I haven’t seen yet, but there is more accommodation there, I believe. Habiba had wanted to go to the site of Ramana’s accident to look for his lost glasses, but Noorunisa, who had stayed in the city, told her not to over the phone – some of the trees Ramana had been cutting down still hadn’t fallen completely, being caught on other trees, so it was dangerous.

On our second day at the hospital, there were a few changes to Ramana’s situation. He was extubated before we arrived. The significance of this is that he no longer needed the tube removing fluid from his lungs and he no longer needed so much help breathing; he would also be able to try talking – whispering, actually. This seemed to be a big step forward, but he was less comfortable than he had seemed the day before; he was no doubt tired out by the process. Later they put him in a kind of chair bed and had him sitting up straighter. He was also wearing a face mask that gave him humid oxygen so his windpipe didn’t get too irritated. Later, he was put back on the respirator without being intubated again.

During the day, Habiba, her mum and I went out for a walk and to pick up some new glasses for Ramana. Later, we went back to the Abode for food and sleep.

At about 1:40 in the morning, we were woken by Habiba’s friend Alia, who told us Ramana had suffered a heart attack. Alia drove us, along with Noorunisa, to the hospital; Erika and Bridget followed us in their hire car. Ramana had apparently suffered cardiac arrest for eight minutes, but he had been worked on to keep his heart and lungs working. He had been intubated again and was back in the high tech bed. He seemed conscious, but weak and drugged up. As I write this, we don’t know what his new prognosis is; more tests are needed.

While we were standing at his bedside, Noorunisa – who seems to have been remarkably level-headed through the whole thing – signed Do Not Resucitate forms. It seems like a heart-breaking decision, but it’s apparently what Ramana wanted straight after the accident. Noorunisa talked to Habiba about it a few days ago and Habiba was dead against it. Now that she’s seen her father, I think Habiba is worried about prolonging his suffering.

Now, as before, as it has been since Ramana’s accident, all we can do is wait. We can’t do anything other than be here and provide company and support for Ramana and each other. We just have to wait to see if Ramana’s body can recover from its injury. We just have to wait to hear what news the medical staff can tell us – and hope that it’s good.

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Habiba’s parents recently bought some land at the Abode (a Sufi community in New York State) and sold their house. They moved into a room at the Abode and began preparing to build a new home. Last week, Habiba’s father was cutting down trees and three trees fell at the same time. One of them hit him before he could get clear. Habiba’s mum was there and called for an ambulance. Sydney, or Ramana, to use his Sufi name, had broken two vertebrae and a few other bones.

We were told about this on Tuesday morning by Habiba’s brother, Vakil. We were preparing for work and Habiba had had a message to get in touch overnight. Habiba was in tears as Vakil explained what had happened and what was happening. I held her as she listened. I’m sure the sorrow and helplessness I felt was just a fraction of what Habiba was feeling. Although what had happened was terrible, I think, for a moment, Habiba was expecting Vakil to deliver the worst news.

Fortunately, the worst news didn’t, and hasn’t come. Ramana was taken to a hospital in Albany where he was operated on and kept unconscious for a couple of days to help his body start to recover. It’s been a week now and he remains in a critical state, but he is slowly starting to show signs of improvement. He is often conscious now, but he has been unresponsive and uncooperative – probably because of the drugs he’s on causing disorientation, but also, we think, because of anger and depression.

Ramana’s prognosis is that he will probably recover, but be paralysed from the chest down. It’s very difficult to say with any certainty, though; things could get a lot better or a lot worse.

The past week has been emotional and stressful for Habiba (and this hasn’t been helped by the fact that we both have bad colds – and I have conjunctivitis again). If there’s one thing Habiba dislikes about living in Korea it’s feeling isolated from her family and friends. Last week’s accident has emphasised that in a pretty horrible way. She has been spending a lot of time on Skype with not just her immediate family, but with many of her friends as well. Everyone’s been very supportive.

Of course, everyone’s efforts at support have been aimed at Habiba’s dad, and there seems to have been a lot of support there for him. Habiba’s brother and sister both flew in from different parts of the US to spend time with him. The Sufi community has set up a committee to help Anne-Louise, or Noorunisa, sort out care, insurance, accommodation and so on. Some of Habiba’s friends are talking about putting on a benefit concert. Someone set up a web page to coordinate information and messages of support.

At first, Habiba didn’t want to make plans to return home. It just wasn’t a clear cut decision. He had been terribly, nearly fatally, injured, but he had survived and was being cared for. He was (and is still) in the hands of the health professionals, and will be for some time. She and I would have had to pay an awful lot to fly over there, and then it would only be for a short time – any longer and we’d lose our jobs (in some respects, that’s something I wouldn’t mind too much). Then we decided, Habiba reluctantly, to cancel our Mongolia trip and go for that week in mid-August.

Then on Sunday night, as Habiba was talking to her mother, she decided that she wanted to go as soon as possible. I’d already thought she would, but I didn’t want to push her. So, yesterday, my colleague Andrew helped me book a couple of tickets for us. We leave tomorrow, Wednesday the 9th of June and fly back on Saturday the 19th (really Friday night) and arrive back in the early hours of Sunday morning. Our flight out to JFK airport takes 14 hours, but we arrive only an hour after we leave – because time zones and all that stuff. The two tickets cost over $3,600 – money that Habiba doesn’t have, but I still have most of my savings from my last two years in Korea.

Habiba has talked a lot about her family, her friends and the Abode a lot in the past – now I’m finally going to see many of them. It’s terribly sad that it’s in such circumstances.

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How to shag

In one of my classes at the moment, I’m doing a book called Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli. It’s very good, actually, and it’s full of American slang and colloquialisms. One of the characters is an old baseball player, so there’s mention of ‘shagging fungoes’. A fungo is a ball hit high in the air to give fielders catching practice. To shag means to run and catch or fetch the ball.

I have to make vocabulary lists for my classes, and my definition for shag was ‘to chase and fetch’. I should have been specific about the nature of the thing that is chased and fetched because my student for that class wrote, as her practice sentence, ‘The police officer shagged the buglar [sic].’

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