I don’t miss riding to work at all – especially not in winter when the trams are warm, and I’m sufficiently rested to enjoy an early morning read. This is not overly encouraged in our house – it’s like someone wants to play the parent figure of her teen years and shush me out of bed because there’s work to be done (there usually isn’t). So, I’ve been plowing through some fiction (some American also – something I doubted I would return to) and have some weighty books accounted for in 2016 so far. NOTE: This doesn’t mean In Search of Lost Time is on the cards for 3Q16 – let’s not get too crazy. I bought the set on a whim (and on some bonus money from work), but heck, it is mainly just for the bookcase if I ever develop a literary buddy or if Gerald Murnane by chance dropped around oneday.
Sometime in early 2016 I started watching Youtube Clips produced by a passionate man called Gilles (is that pronounced Giles or Gille – I’m unsure) in his early 40’s in Quebec. The amazing thing about Gilles is that he thinks nothing of live-streaming his Friday and Saturday night Amateur Radio hobby for three hours at a time without a co-host. The other amazing thing is that he almost single handedly convinced me to buy a small Shortwave (with SSB) radio to listen to mystery stations and generally tool around listening to a lot of static. Sadly, despite a trip to the Moorabin Ham Radio fair with Ash, and a flick through Low Profile Amateur Radio, the possible passion fizzled due mainly to the lack of channels I could pickup in urban Preston. So, the radio sits ready for a trip up north later this year – maybe.
Reading War and Peace threw my interests towards Napoleon, and this lead to Robespierre and the French Revolution by J.M. Thompson, probably the dullest book in the Teach Yourself History series to date. It seems that anyone 200 odd years ago who stuck their neck out and agitated for change, managed to cop it in the end, and Robespierre and his cohort of Jacobins polished off the Girondins before being flushed out themselves when the time came. Gosh he would have been a dull man to live with. 3 stars.
So, Gerald Murnane gets to 75 and then writes easily his most accessible book to date Something for the Pain, perhaps the only one I would recommend to a non-believer. I was delighted again and again with this recollection of childhood events and memories of the turf. It is possibly the only book that I’ve ever found myself consciously trying to slow down and soak in, because it I was gobbling it up like a pack of ginger biscuits. Outstanding! 5 stars.
Despite being pretty passionate about music in the past, composer stories (real or not) don’t excite. Ok, I did enjoy those Phillip Glass and Glenn Gould bios. I think I was dazzled by the Booker 2014 Longlist on the cover, and the mention of Bach on the rear. In truth Orfeo by Richard Powers wasn’t a bad book, but I just couldn’t accept the premise of the composer deciding to morph his passion into finding musical structures amongst the biological world. The book is clearly a love letter to classical composition, but I found myself glazing over in the more musical chapters and enjoying the human interactions and suspense elements. 3 stars.
I wasn’t convinced at all by Margaret Atwoods’ The Heart Goes Last. Although a real page turner with a sexy theme, the whole premise felt flawed; the story light and overly simple, the characters not believable and I spent the second half of it fobbing off my cynicism whilst trying to wind it up. This has shaken my faith in one of the few female writers I (mostly) trust. Will wait for her next nervously. 2 stars.
Speaking of female writers, Barkskins by Annie Proulx was a much more solid proposition (in more ways than one at 710 pages). Early on, I accidentally read a negative review of it in the Irish Times which called it trite and lambasted it for its “set pieces”, but thankfully I never found these aspects irritating. My problem with the book was (like Accordion Crimes) its overly broad generational sweep, which towards the last quarter of the book became a gallop through reams of names and sons of sons in a few quick lines with nothing more than an intention to get you to the present day. Other sections were far more consistent and engrossing – the fiercely business-like Lavinia Duke, the desperately unlucky travels of Jinot Sel, the descriptions of the logging camps and river work were all wonderfully convincing – I had no lack of interest in this book at all until about 3/4 way through. I’d read it again though – probably my second favourite of hers after Postcards – a real return to form which whilst lecturing about mans irresponsible ways, told some wonderful stories, with all the usual Proulx research and attention to period detail. Way too many characters though. 4 stars.
When selecting this book, I think I mistook the “#1 International Bestseller” label on the cover of The Truth and the Harry Quebert Affair by Joel Dicker for “Winner of the 2015 Edgar Award“, because that’s what I wanted out of my annual / bi-annual crime book (just to show my wife I really do read other genres occasionally). I thought it would be a little more serious, and by the end (640 pages mind you!) it felt preposterous and silly; the number of twists in the last few chapters becoming a bit crazy. The dialogue was terrible, the inclusion of the young novelist into a 33 year old crime case implausible and yet it was still a massively addictive page turner which had me wanting to know who killed Laura Palmer, I mean Nola. 3 stars.
Home life is definitely more settled since we gulped, booked our little Chloe in for a lethal injection and eventually went through a rough few days of tears, usually coming out of nowhere at all. I don’t think I was in total denial about the deterioration in her condition, but once the two week countdown had begun, I kept finding reasons why it was too soon to put her down. The last couple of days were complete shockers and I knew it was the right time, and yet even then I was unable to be in the room to face my decision. Poor old Kim took the fall for me that day.
It didn’t take long to feel the burden of her longstanding difficult condition start to lift from my shoulders. The first day I took Fergus out afterwards was an exercise in exhilaration and catharsis for both man and animal; we power-walked distant territory long unavailable to us due to Chloe’s limited speed and range. It was just fantastic. Now we have other issues, like what do we do with the second half of the dog food can, or will he handle a new dog well (or teach it how to lunge at other canines) or even, do we bother with another dog at all? Getting daily PetRescue new-dog alerts is not helping. We’ll see.
I’ve had a rough few weeks really; feeling sick and having almost continuous pain in my back and sides, made worse by eating. The pancreatitis has returned and there is little relief from the random spasms and nighttime wake ups. I’ve dropped 4kgs and am down to 64.5 today. A lot of time things have worsened on weekends meaning I haven’t had to take much time off work really, but each day is a crap shoot.
Reading online is not exactly reassuring and it is sobering stuff to read of chronic pancreatitis bringing reduced life expectancy and the challenges of long term pain management.
I don’t believe I’m an alarmist but I have come to accept the seriousness of my position. Things I’ve taken for granted like holidays away or an income until I choose to retire may no longer be options. I feel lucky that my work are so reasonable and understanding…2016 might put them to the test!
I find myself a little emotional about my possible fate and feel for my wonderful wife who has been a helpful and upbeat presence. It’s not been helped by us deciding to put our 16 year old dog down in the near future.
Stopping alcohol in 2013 was a cinch but this time around, the muffins, pizza, chips, pastries and chocolate are a lot harder. I find myself staring at people in shops and salavating. Wanting to eat but being afraid of the consequences has been the biggest challenge so far.
Let’s see what tomorrow’s x-ray and ultrasound show..I’m not expecting anything but there’s always a chance something might show up.
I don’t know what it was about this year which made me write down some Post-It note goals and want to actually do some of them. I’ve read about people hitting middle age and sensing the tightening of time they have left, which leaves them feverish till the end; ambivalent years in their 20s seeming wasteful in hindsite. Maybe I’ve become one of those people.
Finished a 3000 piece jigsaw puzzle which took me about 5 months in the end. It only cost $1 – a shrewd buy from Kim at an Op shop up north. Choosing a 1615 Belgian civic parade or “Ommegang” ticked all the right boxes (historic, low countries, and fine detail) which generally draw me to a picture. At one point it sat untouched for 6 weeks around Christmas, when I’d done all the easier bits (top 3rd) and had to identify maybe 2000 single pieces and place them in their spots – never connecting them all till right near the end. That was exhausting, and the lighting and uncomfortable seating didn’t help. But I’m really pleased I did it in the end – many cups of herbal tea (and dry biscuits) later. Now I want to go see a real one!
Then War and Peace got read. When I heard the series was coming on TV this year, I knew that my 2013 purchase needed to come off the shelf, and at first I was worried with all the French phrasing interspersed amongst the Russian to English translation, but it was quite a pleasure to read really. Apart from a tedious Epilogue which I think Tolstoy intended to prove his rigour but to a modern reader seemed like the same argument twisted 20 ways to fill pages, it was surprisingly breezy and fun. I didn’t really know what to expect, not an anti-war piece; Tolstoy at pains to point out the fate of the naive, seeking glory or the blind worship of the Tsar, and scornful of those wishing to summarise the result as a series of won or lost encounters. General Kutuzov seemed to be the anti-hero, unpopularly retreating again and again to save the Russian Army, at the risk of being un-Russian but in doing so, gaining eventual victory but lifelong ignomony amongst his peers. Loved the 6 part series on the BBC too. 4.5 stars.
Looks like my WoW guild has splintered tonight, with typical bad timing for all involved, having seen the last phase of the final boss of the Warlords of Draenor expansion. Two more weeks and he would probably have fallen over! Gah.
Looks like it’s time for me to try a few new things and free myself up on Mondays and Wednesdays, which Kim will love. No idea what will take WoW’s place, but seeing as I started proper raiding in February 2007 and hadn’t stopped since, it’s going to feel weird at first. Looking forward to it really.
20 years ago, I was mildly stung by criticism by Kim that an expensive hardback I’d asked for as a present was unread (and it remains the case). It’s become a running joke whenever she shells out some dollars on me, and 2015 seems to have been the year I either ran out of personal reading interests, or the year I paid respect to my wife’s tastes. Two out of three of her Christmas books are in the can so to speak, and there are smiles all round.
It was a weird year for reading, where the English history books were losing their lustre a little, the Dutch ascending, and the emergence of a few Running texts reflected recent interests. The podcast listening probably went the same way – no more WoW ones (despite still hanging on by a thread playing the game), and Marathon Talk and local Aussie equivalents got a regular listen. I became familiar with the IAAF and Russian state-sponsored doping! Interviews with local aspirants means I now have heightened awareness of the leadup / qualifiers to the Rio 2016 Olympics, so I’m looking forward to the big distance events this year since I know the athletes names and follow a few on Twitter.
Back to some books, Russell Shorto’s “Amsterdam” was a $10 Reading book table special I was pretty certain I’d dislike – written by a yank, newly resident in Europe, and starting off with him dropping his child at a nanny’s place, so he could be free to research and ponder earlier times. I thought I’d last 50 pages, but the book ended up winning me over. Well researched and comprehensive – hats off to Russell! 4 stars.
Wanting something a little lighter next, I couldn’t resist the preposterous bestseller “The One Hundred Year Old Man who Climbed out the Window and Disappeared” by Jonas Jonasson. A silly farcical road trip it was, but utterly charming. There are not many books that can lay claim to including a scene about an elephant evading police capture by riding in a converted yellow school bus. The movie just happened to have been released recently, so we watched that too, and it was fun watching how they grappled with the more ridiculous scenes, some of which just couldn’t be executed on screen. Such a fun romp. 4 stars.
“A Gentle Madness” by Nicholas Basbanes took me awhile to get through. Dense and serious, I came to appreciate how long it may have taken the author to establish the credibility to mix in the circles needed to learn the legendary stories of the high-end book buying world and its obsessive collectors. The section on Stephen Blumberg was particularly good due to the criminal aspects and his close access to the man. It was still a wonderful read, full of eccentrics, despite being dry and overly lengthy in parts. Don’t think I’ll ever own a First Folio though… 4 stars.
Why did I read another Dutch book? Kim bought it for me of course! “Why the Dutch are Different” by Ben Coates, a pom who married a Dutch girl in Rotterdam, was a much more modern take on the country. He’s out there travelling around the south, soaking it all up, going to a bunch of Carnaval celebrations in Breda and Eindhoven and asking some of the trickier questions about the limits of Dutch tolerance, the uncomfortable racism of Zwarte Piet, and some of myths of Dutch wartime resistance and narrative. It got a touch repetitive near the end but I really liked this book too. 4 stars.
I heard a decent summary of the battle of Agincourt in a History Extra podcast interview with Anne Curry, so her book “Agincourt” surprisingly had little left to add in it’s efforts to unearth all possible references on the English and French sides. Long debated aspects such as “the sizes of the two armies”, “the importance of the English bowmen” and “whether the French prisoners were killed on the King’s word” were worked through again and again. The problem with such limited source material – often written well after the events, is there really isn’t much of a book in it, especially with someone as scrupulous as Curry at the helm. More interesting would have been an imagining of the events told as fiction. Probably not the wisest choice of a purchase Kim! Too academic for me. 2 stars.
“Two Hours” is Ed Caesar’s well researched history of the Marathon, running physiology and of the current crop of Kenyans who are inching the 26 mile record closer to 120 minutes using previously unthinkable early race aggression, and pacers. There’s some talk of drug use in the sport, and a sense of how far the race has fallen in terms of public awareness and admiration for its stars, now that they are almost always African runners. From what I gather, no other writer has taken the time to get to know the Kenyans, visit their training camps and tell their stories like Ed, so I am full of respect for his efforts. It was a decent book, which reminds that success is brief and hard work is everything. 4 stars.
Ruth Goodman wrote “How to be a Victorian” and its sister book How to be a Tudor because she’s a practical lady with oodles of curiosity and time on her hands to explore yesteryear. Arranged in dawn till dusk order, she takes us through a day in the life of the various classes from the 1830s till 1900, providing personal examples of her attempts to eat, clean, dress and work like a Victorian for what must have been years on end. I think someone told me she was on a “period-reality show” for much of it. Seems like bloody hard (and hot – 10 petticoats anyone?) work. I was never bored, but it was a touch long maybe – attitudes to bathing, clothing and health in particular were eye opening. 4 stars.
I’ve been running a bit more over the past 12 months thanks to my TomTom watch and it’s auto-upload to Strava. Been really fun seeing the maps and stats and I even started using some of the social features to put me in touch with other locals, since it’s nice to have a running partner on those days you’re less motivated. So, I wanted to log it here that I did my longest ever run a few weeks back after (I think) shrugging off the curse of lifelong shinsplint issues and am able to go around three times a week. I joined a MMM group session around Princes Park and stayed with the slowest runner Jessie for 15k before heading out for quicker 4k to finish off. Such a confidence booster. But I fell awkwardly on some sand on the bitumen and twisted my foot and long story, injured my knee the following week in another 15k run – I will have to start from scratch after 2-3 weeks complete rest. Ah well. I am not too disheartened, even if I had to cancel the 1/2 Marathon planned for Portarlington on 13th Feb. I feel really good about this year though:
Aims for 2016: Coburg (or any) Parkrun 5k in under 20 mins (best so far: 21:35). Multiple 1/2Ms this year, going to try for 1 hour 35 mins. Both are sizeable stretch targets.
Last year I did 93 runs (logged) for 700k, but ramped up significantly in October onwards, so I expect to see a lot more than that for 2016.
Some more odds and sods here before I completely forget the gist of them.
“Thinking Medieval” by Marcus Bull had delectable front cover artwork and was thin enough to tempt me despite the dry tone and feeling that it was someone’s PHD thesus. The takeaway for me was being aware of the traps for historians examining and assessing a former age and rigour needed to keep an open mind and not make assumptions based on today’s values. 3 stars.
In complete contrast, “The Adventures of Holly White and the incredible Sex Machine” by Krissy Kneen was lurid and thrilling – especially to begin with, but the repetitive sex scenes in Paris became a little wearing and the ending was so wilfully climactic that I don’t even really know what happened. 5 stars for imagination and a willingness to go into unknown surreal territory, but I’ll have to deduct 1 point for the last third of the book which was all over the place in trying to bring the story back to some sort of end. Crazy stuff! So much fun – 4 stars.
There’s nothing by Coetzee I haven’t liked, including his decision to become an Adelaide resident and Australian Citizen, so an $8 hardback “Youth” – the story of his move from South Africa to England in the 1960s was always going to be interesting to me. Every bit as interesting as Clive James, (less funny, but more honest and self deprecating) this was a marvellous read. Who knew his beginnings as an early IBM programmer would be just the antidote needed to force him into writing and a more satisfying life. 4.5 stars.
Footnote: How embarrassing, I read the above book seven years ago and reviewed it more comprehensively here. Sigh.
It took me awhile to read, but the comprehensive and never boring “Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England” by Ian Mortimer contained stories and samples of daily life in the 1300s. There’s not an aspect of life that isn’t covered – from how many shoes people owned, to how many people slept in a bed or where the term “room and board” came from. From mostly horrifying sections on the Law, Medicine, Hygiene and Food to more fun parts about humour, language and pastimes, the crazy facts just kept coming. I loved the small cheats guide to Chaucer section, because I’m never going to read Canterbury Tales anyhow. 4.5 stars – enthralling.
The closest I get to Sci Fi nowadays is Margaret Atwood, and the Oryx and Crake trilogy needed to be completed with “Maddaddam” and it was. Genuinely imaginative, the absolutely necessary matter of fact summary of the first two books at the beginning of the third was a godsend to me. The story is so out there that it’s troublesome to describe to a friend or partner as it reads as part kids story and part dystopian Animal Farm, where everyone has an odd name and copes as best they can with the increasingly dire situation. Atwood tries very hard to be original and succeeds wonderfully – her blue Craker race of genetically modified, simpler, gentler humans being absolutely believable. Although a little sad towards the end, I felt I’d been on a great journey – the Zeb and Adam story was particularly interesting (if a little improbable) and formed the backbone of this third book. 4.5 stars.
Now that the free MX magazine has ceased and the temptations of I-spotted-a-future-boyfriend-on-the-South-Morang-3:47pm letters have faded, I’ve been able to focus on my backlog of London Review of Books and the Monthlys. Meanwhile, some bedtime books are getting read too.
Firstly, let me say what a terrible disappointment the Punch books have been. It probably didn’t help that my cheap copy of Mr. Punch goes to War arrived with goop on the front cover, was full of dust and neglect, and when I attempted to clean it, managed to smear the gilt lettering on the cover with green dye. I rated it as disappointing on Abebooks and promptly had a guy all over me selling his arse to get me to change my review. I’d forgotten how important online reputations are to sellers, and didn’t mean any harm – was just an honest assessment of the quality of the book that arrived. So, in the end, he sent me Mr Punch on Tour, which was in better nick, though no funnier. Not recommended, though the pictures were fun. Two stars.
HHHH by Laurent Binet was quite a change in pace, and an enthralling page turner about Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the SS in WW2. Particularly horrifying was the vengeful obliteration of the town of Lidice as a consequence of the attack on Heydrich. I cannot recommend this book enough – Five stars.
The Saturday book is a charming annual (I have mild aspirations towards collecting the set from 1941 to 1973(?) – this one being #23 from 1963) – there’s the usual slightly salacious cartoons and an article about old rude postcards, an article about the origins of ladies bloomers, and a short biography of the creator (Heinrich Hoffmann) of the apparently well known Struwwelpeter (the original Edward Scissorhards I suppose) from the mid 1800s. Finally an interesting look at the eccentric Marie Laurencin and her unique ghostly paintings.
Katherine Boo’s Beyond the Beautiful Forevers is an earnest expose on the conditions and knife-edge lives of Mumbai slum-dwellers. Completely compelling, though sad, and meticulously researched (in person), I heard the film adaptation was canned by critics, and came across as clichéd, but the book doesn’t read like that in the slightest. Four stars.
I just loved A Wanderer in Holland by supposedly populist writer E.V Lucas, written in 1905 and filled with forthright statements about the sillyness of certain Dutch towns for their architectural or artistic decisions to not champion world class artists or writers. Primarily a travel guide to the countries greatest artwork and writings, filled with paintings of towns and from galleries, with copious gruesome historical details such as the Spanish siege of Haarlem (and others), it was a wonderful introduction to the country, just as I was doing my dutch genealogy research. I got to read about cities my relatives lived in (Dordrecht and Leiden), whilst the author travelled the country on boats and railways which no longer exist since the destruction of WW1. It made me want to pay some good dollars for a Baedekers handbook for Holland. Four stars.
Bill Bryson’s At Home was also quite the page turner – he covers an awful lot of ground, but does it in an entertaining way. The bibliography is stupidly, snobbishly long and even improbable I think, but the 632 pages were full of early facts about the habits of home life and the surprisingly uncomfortable lives that mankind led up until very recently. Four stars also.