Thursday, 29 November 2012

Reading update

Earlier in the year I set myself a goal of reading 25 books this year. At times that has seemed like an easy goal, and at others an impossible one.  One of the forces working against me has been my guilty conscience - when I have marking, or proof-reading, or reviewing on my slate at work, then I take work home. This isn't to say I stop reading because I'm working (although that does sometimes happen), but the presence of the work in my unopened bag makes me guilty enough to stop myself reading for pleasure.

Nonetheless, it hasn't been a bad year thus far for reading. The chief reason for this has been Game of Thrones, which has accounted for 5 of the 18 books I've read thus far, and a much greater proportion of the pages I've read. Last night I finished the 5th of the series, A Dance With Dragons, bringing me up to date and into the large group of people waiting patiently for Martin's final 2 instalments, whenever they should arrive. Its a pretty serviceable series, better written than a lot of fantasy, and less closely drawn to the standard fantasy story archetypes (the hero's quest for symbol of power, blah blah blah). Martin's willingness to kill off significant characters gruesomely, and often suddenly, also helps to make the stories less predictable for the rusted-on reader of the genre, which is nice. Having watched the first season of the excellent TV adaptation before reading book 1, and the second at the same time as I read book 2, I now find myself a long way ahead. To date the adaptation has produced one series per book, but I suspect it will struggle to do so as the stories broaden across Martin's world, and as the source books thicken.

I've also read a couple of other books to break up the flow. I started Murakami's 1Q84 while in London, and finished after I got back, but I can't say I enjoyed it much. It moves at a very slow pace, and a number of things about his writing frustrate me - he's obsessed with women's bodies, more than I found reasonable, and his ambition in his prose style outstrips his ability, I thought, with a lot of strained metaphors and distracting detours from the central plot, mixed with excessive exposition and leaps of logic from his characters. It also desperately wanted a severe editor - a 300 page story in a 1000 page book.

At the Lifeline book fair earlier this year, 3 of the books I bought were Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy. Having read Red Mars, the first instalment, its certainly an impressive piece of work. There is a really strong sense of scientific credibility in his writing, and no lack of depth in the way he has thought out the colonisation and terraforming of Mars. However, the narrative does suffer, and its not always a compelling read in terms of its characters or story, so I found it a bit hard going. I will probably dip into the second and third books at some point, but I'm in no hurry.

At my mother's urging, I have managed to squeeze in a local book as well. Very local, in fact - Over the Top With Jim by Hugh Lunn is set only 4 about blocks from where I live, and a number of the settings for the 1950s coming-of-age story are places I frequent every week - the "state school" (as opposed to the catholic school) next door to me, Ekibin Creek at the bottom of my street (even if its really a park-and-drain now), and various others (alas, not the cinemas, which have all closed in the intervening years). The book itself is a decent enough yarn, with enough geographical and historical familiarity to keep me interested even if the cultural and temporal settings didn't resonate particularly with me, not having grown up either catholic, in the fifties, or more importantly in a time when religion was a conspicuous cultural discriminant.

The other book I've read recently was another I picked up at the Lifeline book fair - Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton. Its a fairly simple story about a black South-African reverend who comes to Johannesburg to seek people from his village who have run afoul of various of the social issues which burnt South Africa through much of the 20th century. Its a fairly grim tale at times, but Paton writes very well, with what felt to me like strong influences from Steinbeck, in the way he uses individual characters to represent larger social movements, and Hemingway, in the way he uses cross-language dialogue.

Friday, 31 August 2012

a friday evening at home

Too often I write of the long, and not often enough of the now. Here I sit on a Friday afternoon, in need of escapism, and finding it, in scribed fantasy with a side of G'n'T. The G has more effect, I'm sure but the T, cheap but freshly released, is more distracting, as it crackles on the roof of my mouth while I linger on the words that so well distract me from the dreary week.  

As I read of vivid characters doing great deeds, I reflect on my own small, pyrrhic victories fought over grounds devoid of consequence, and wonder which of the great boulders arrayed around me will descend next. Recently I seem to have managed those that matter, or at least those descending from hills nearby, pushing them back up their respective slopes to fall on me another day.

I had to make the hard choice this week to push one rock to the side, rather than back up a hill. Conferences are one of the things that really renew my energy for what I do, but a combination of onrushing time and a performance review pushing me to different priorities has made me delay what would have been a very stimulating and enjoyable conference tour through the Germanic-speaking parts of Europe, in favour of a less educational but hopefully more productive trip to oh-so-familiar parts a few months further distant.

I am revelling in my return to fantasy. It has been months since I last plunged deep under its crashing waves, but the characters, the lexicon and the pleasant rhythms of its lost words come rushing easily back. It is interesting, renewing acquaintances with characters first met on the screen, which faces survive into the mind's eye through the written page. Some appear instantly on their name as they I once saw them, but others reject their televised visages and come from the page in the abstract, in ignorance of their adapted provenance. Testament to casting, I suppose.

In a little while, Asha and Arya and Lord Snow (who knows nothing!) will release me, and I'll turn to my tarte (bacon and leek and zucchini and cheese, oh my!), but for now, its downtech and backtime and offworld to esapism...

Monday, 13 August 2012

more running

I had a few days away from running after the half marathon last weekend. Partly this was in order to allow my feet the time to recover from blisters, and partly it was because I was at uni late 4 out of the 5 nights, and couldn't find the time to run.

On Saturday, though, after a day walking around inside talking to 12-year olds, I decided a run was in order. So, profitting from another beautiful Brisbane winter afternoon, and headed out along  the Norman Creek greenway to blow out the cobwebs.

I had initially only planned to take it fairly easy, but I felt really good, so I actually kept up a strong pace, running up to Stanley St East and back, on what has become my goto route for about 8km. I took my phone, strapped to my arm, but it proved pretty useless, with first the mp3 player (perhaps because of dodgy headphone) and then RunKeeper both letting me down, the latter insisting I had run 830m at 7:23 pace, rather than 8km at (I reckon) about 4:40.

On Sunday afternoon, I found a few reasons to go out again. In recent times I've had trouble running two days in a row, with shin splints in my right leg causing me a lot of shin pain. A recent visit to the podiatrist, though, has given me some hope of alleviating that, so my first reason for going out was to see whether the exercises and new shoes would make it possible for me to back up. The second was that I have recently had my eyes on Toohey Forest Park as a promising place to go running, and wanted to scout it out. The third, and most significant, was that I had so enjoyed running the previous day that I wanted to make the most of another perfect afternoon.

I headed south down to Toohey Road, and followed it south up and over Weller's Hill (past the school of some of the students I'd met the day before) then up to the forest. Once there I headed along the Toohey Ridge track. I was feeling good, though, so I doubled back along the Sandstone circuit, before again following the Ridge track through the park before emerging on Monash Rd along what I think was the Tallowwood Track (although it wasn't signed as that). The park was everything I hoped it would be, isolated from the city bustle with only a few dog- and bushwalkers, with native birds calling and even a few native plants in bloom. The path was in good condition, and although I stumbled once, I quickly adjusted to running on a less stable and predictable surface, and really enjoyed the extra challenge. Its a bit of a hike to get there (4km each way over some reasonably significant hills, although I mucked around a bit on the way back winding my way through Tarragindi), so it won't be my regular run, but I can see myself spending a fair bit more time getting to know the other trails in the park. I may even consider riding my bike down so I can try some runs up and down the hills.

This was certainly the best couple days of running I've had since I ran in Berlin earlier this year, and perhaps beyond that.

Who knows, I may turn into a runner yet.

The bad and the good

Work has been pretty crazy over the last, well, 7 months or so. I think I can trace it back almost exactly to a point 2 weeks after returning from my Christmas holiday, since which point I've basically been constantly behind what I needed to do. At the moment I'm neglecting my paper reviewing duties, as well as a few hangover things from tidying up last semester's course. I'm fortunate enough to not be coordinating any courses this semester, but that will be more than made up for by my service duties.

Sometimes, though, there are some things that make it worthwhile. On Saturday I went along to serve as a judge at Young ICT Explorers, a competition held at UQ for primary and high school students. The competition, which has been running for a few years now, sees groups of students from grades 4 through to 12 present projects they have been working on over the last year. I served as a judge last year and was really impressed by so many things about the day: the quality of the students' work, their enthusiasm for working with ICT, and the number of students participating (and especially the number of girls participating - ICT needs more girls!). So I was keen to come back and help out again this year.

This year I was judging with Dan Angus, another lecturer from ITEE (actually a joint appointment with the school of journalism), and Mithila, a student in our multimedia and design degree. We had 7 projects to judge, but one didn't show, so we made very good time getting around talking to the students. The first five projects were pretty good, and once provoked, the students were enthusiastic about telling us what they'd enjoyed, what they'd found hard, and why they were proud of their work.

The sixth project was by just one girl, who had made a website providing maths and english exercises for other year 6 students. She had clearly put a lot of work into it, had thought about why it was useful, and had done a bunch of other things such as making a maths game with some quite well thought-mechanics linked to her theme. She was our pick as the best project we saw, and wound up in a tie for first place in her category.

Before the presentation of the awards, I heard she'd been having a cry because she'd had such a good day. Knowing that she was about to get some more good news, I was just so excited, and sure enough she had another cry when she was called up on stage. It was such a good feeling to be able to give her the acknowledgement she deserved for her hard work, and to see how happy it made her.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

personal bests and proxy bests

Finishing the 2012 Brisbane Half Marathon (photo courtesy of David Curnow)

Despite my lamentation a couple of weeks ago that I wasn't a runner, running played a reasonably significant role in my last two or three weeks, albeit more by significance than by actual time spent.

A bit over two weeks ago I popped over to inTraining to get myself some new shoes. My previous pair were a bit over a year old, and I reckon probably had 800-1000km on them. I had heard that this was about the useful life of a pair of running shoes, and I was seeing signs of this in the guise of some foot pain after my runs. After trying on a few pairs, and hearing my sob stories about sore feet and shins, the salesman suggested that I might be well advised to see their podiatrist before I rushed into buying something. I was able to get an appointment that afternoon, and he gave me a few useful tips in terms of some stretches/exercises to strengthen some muscles in my hip to try and lessen the stress on my feet and legs, and made a nice little cushion to protect my sore foot. I wound up buying one of the pairs of shoes I'd tried earlier, certainly the most colourful I've ever owned, with garish green splashed lavishly on the sole and upper.

This weekend just passed, I once again ran the half marathon in the Brisbane Running Festival. I was fortunate enough to get a lift in with David, an old college friend who has just gotten back into running in the last couple of years, and was running his first official half. He's actually a very handy runner, though, so I harboured no illusions of keeping up with him.

The start this year was on Alice Street near the botanical gardens' entrance, which was a marked improvement of last year's chaotic laps of the gardens. I fairly quickly fell in with the 1:45 pace runners, which hadn't been my plan, but I felt comfortable, so I stuck with them for the first 5 or 6 km. Although we started before the sun appeared, it turned into a sensational Brisbane winter morning - cool and crisp under a clear, deep-blue sky - and I was feeling really happy as we were going across the Story Bridge. The pace runners were running a bit behind 1:45 though, and when they lifted in order to make up some time, I couldn't and didn't go with them. I felt pretty reasonable for quite a long time, but whether from the fast start, or from my not having done many long runs, by around 16km I was really struggling.

I had a few walks between 16 and 19, and saw the 1:50 pace runners pass me somewhere just before the North Quay stretch. The route had the misfortune to run us right past the finish line with 2km still to run, uphill up Garden's Point Road then around the gardens. After a last walk up the hill, and looking regularly behind me expecting to see the caped, scythe-toting spectre of the 1:55 pace runner, I dug deep and finished strongly over the last km or so, and was delighted to see a time just a shade over 1:53. David had finished 20 minutes earlier, and was waiting for me at the line, which was great. The results were up within 5 minutes, which was super-impressive, and my chip time came in at 1:52:27, almost 3 minutes faster than I ran last year, on what I think is a more difficult course. Its quite possible that this will remain my PB for some time, so I lashed out and got my time engraved on my finisher's medal (photo to follow).

As well as my results, it was great to be able to have a group of friends also running good times. Dave Curnow ran 1:32-odd in his first official half, which he seemed to have mixed feelings about, but which I reckon is pretty impressive. I also caught up with Dave Coyle and Neil, who ran the 10km, in 50 and 47 minutes respectively, which I believe are both also PBs. Its been really interesting to see how the social systems built into RunKeeper (which we all use to track our runs) have kept us up to date with what the others in our "Street Team" are doing, and (in my opinion) encouraged us to keep running. I feel a definite sense of pride in their achievements as well as mine; their is an element, however small, of team success in them.

A few days on, I'm recovering from what was a fairly nasty-looking collection of blisters, and feeling good about getting out for another run in the next few days (when I find some time!). Like last year, I'm not sure that running half marathons is what I most like doing in the world, but I can see myself doing it again. Perhaps even more than last year, I'm really proud of having done a PB, especially when I don't think I was quite as fit as last year. At the same time, I'm still "running dumb", and with some better training and some better race-management (for lack of a better word), I reckon I can still improve.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Red eyes looking back at you stumbling

A few months ago I signed up to have another go at the Brisbane half-marathon. As proud as I was of finishing last year, and of going under 2 hours, I was disappointed with how I ran it, and my main motivation for signing up again was to see if I was capable of running it "properly" (whatever that means), and seeing what doing so would mean for my time. It seemed like a good idea when the run was still 3 months away. Now, though, its 3 weeks, and I am forced to admit that I am not in the kind of shape that will allow me to test my hypothesis on what is a more difficult course than last year.

My motivation for signing up is significant in part because it does not stem from any tremendous joy experienced during last year's tilt. To be honest, I get bored beyond about 10km, and one of the dominating emotions I have while running longer distances is that of self-admonition for not being better at it. (This isn't the only time I go in for self-admonition - its one of my goto moves - but it is one of the more intense ones).

The race organisers sent around an image on their facebook page the other day.

I know some people for whom this has some truth. My lunch hours, though, are for eating. My Saturday mornings are absolutely for sleeping, and I'm pretty keen on the idea of taking it easy on my holidays. By any reasonable interpretation of this motivational, then...

I am not a runner. I'd quite like to say otherwise, but its just not the case.

That said, I've paid my entry fees, and since I'm (a) too tightarsed to go asking for a refund, and (b) not a fan of that feeling of walking when I should be running, I figure I'll keep training as much as my body allows for a couple of weeks and hope I can somehow scrape in under 2 hours again.

The days I've thrown away

I can't remember when I last had a memorable day.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Cheers, Lucksmiths

I had always suspected that there was at least one reference in the Lucksmiths' Requiem to the Punter's Club that I hadn't yet gleaned. The other day I happened to hear the Cheers theme song,

Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name,
And they're always glad you came;
You want to be where you can see,
Our troubles are all the same;
You want to be where everybody knows your name.

For those unfortunates who don't know the Lucksmiths' refrain,

So act surprised
It's been a while since I came calling
I know it's late
But old times' sake and all that junk
I'll be alright
We'll make tonight tomorrow morning
Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows you're drunk
Years after they called it quits, I get so much pleasure out of their music.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

from beneath the toppling towers

It was never my intention to stop writing. This is my liturgy, of course, but in the case I really did return from Europe with every intention of continuing the renewed activity of blogging stimulated by the surrounds, stimulus and above all the great company I had in Europe. Life, though, and more specifically working life, took a hand.

I will not for a second pretend that I am a victim of overwork. I am not someone endowed with a work ethic, and having seen closely the commitment exhibited under great demands by those who are, I would hasten to say that I don't think what has been asked of me has been beyond me. It has, though, been a significant step up from what I was doing last year and before that, particularly in the number of responsibilities, which has gone from numerous to bewildering.

My trip, too, for all its aforementioned merits, came at an inconvenient time. As much as the visits I made stimulated my enthusiasm for research, it left me with a significant backlog of both teaching and service duties on my return to the campus, a backlog from which I have still to extricate myself two months on.

A big part of the problem has been that I spend a lot of time counting my tasks and stressing over them as opposed to doing them. When I have occasioned to list my outstanding tasks, I fairly easily run to and beyond a full A4 page, and I have had trouble seeing the trees for the forest (let alone the florist for the flowers, if I might be permitted a smell-the-roses/Lucksmiths reference).

Also, whether it is a subconscious devotion to the idea of work-life balance or a reluctance to admit the urgency of my obligations, I have had difficulty getting work done at home. As a general principle, I don't have a problem with this, but the practical reality is that I need to be working weekends at present, and that has proven difficult. Despite that, I have been actively depriving myself of some of my preferred leisure activities - shying away from starting certain novels (which isn't to say I haven't been reading them!), a complete abstinence from gaming - although on these fronts too I am not convinced that the deprivation has been in any way profitable, with the time redirected more to stressing about obligations than to meeting them.

There is some hope that over the next fortnight or so, I will be able to extricate myself somewhat and restore some kind of normality to my work-related stress levels. This hope, perhaps better qualified as an imperative, relies on my really pulling my finger out in the short term to meet some fast-approaching deadlines. Hopefully their successful resolution will, if nothing else, allow me to not work at home without the overbearing sense of guilt.

Monday, 30 April 2012

lecture away from lecture

I had promised, as recently as earlier today, to return from my travel-induced interregnum from book reviews, to flooding this blog with apologetically late accounts of my reading habits. However, after very little thought (as is my wont for these entries), I've decided against that. Instead, I shall be taking a positive view. I was able, or chose, to devote countless column inches in the last month or two to my activities outside the cover of a book, but this is not so much a reflection of what I have been doing instead of reading, as of what I have been doing as well. Indeed, as has been the case in the past when I've travelled, I've probably read as much or more as I would otherwise have. Anyway, the absence of reviews is a good thing - it indicates that I have things happening in my life that take a higher priority than reading and blogging about reading :)

In fact, though, I must begin my now-traditional catchup with some books read before my departure. Back in January, for the first time in a long time, I visited the library, and came away with an armful of books to read. The last of these, as it turned out, was Cormac McCarthy's The Road. My first foray into McCarthy had been All The Pretty Horses, back in 2009, and enjoyed it, but the Road was a very different book. Not different in that I didn't like it - I think on the balance that I did - but the writing is starkly different, stripped back to a bare minimum, to match the world being described. To be honest, its almost not a book you like so much as appreciate - the story is tough and at times uncompromising, and at times so can be the reading experience, but I thought it was worth it.

Ok, so it wasn't the last book from the library. That honour, dubious though it may be, goes to the wonderful Terry Pratchett, and Unseen Academicals. I was recently trying to sell Pratchett's work to someone who, though a fan of satire, was strongly averse to fantasy writing. My argument was essentially that his writing, that is, his mastery of the English language, takes a back seat to no currently working author I could name, and though I failed to make my case successfully, I hold that to be true. This is in strong evidence in Unseen Academicals, in which he weaves his familiar world of the university with that of the origin/codification of soccer, the story of Romeo and Juliet, and of the acceptance of the outsider. None of the threads ever becomes heavy, but they each come through clearly and coherently, and all with beautiful prose and replete with the anecdotes and wordplay that will be his hallmark when his writing career soon, regrettably, comes to a close (or so I have heard).

Before leaving to go overseas, I found myself in between the end of my lease and settlement on my new abode, and having the pleasure of spending a week with my friends Paul and Juli. Juli is quite the collector of books, and being without one, I took it upon myself to scour her shelves for something recognisable that I could be sure to finish in what was a busy week. My eyes fell upon Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury, and it ticked all those boxes, as well as the more important one of being good! Its a scifi classic, I suppose, though its really more dystopian, in the style of 1984 or Brave New World, than hard scifi (the distinction could be argued, obviously). The central character is a fireman in a world in which that role has become one not of putting fires out, but of starting them, in order to destroy books, which are banned. As the story progresses, the fireman first rebels against and then flees the regime.

Having left for my trip, I avoided reading for a little while, knowing that I had a lot of work reading/reviewing/proofreading to do, and knowing my tendency to read voraciously while travelling. I succumbed eventually though, once getting to Rennes, and stayed dystopian, reading Margaret Atwood's A Handmaid's Tale. This is another famous dystopia, in which the central character is a handmaid, a woman given over to the sole purpose of bearing children in a society in which women have been stripped of all rights to property, work or self-determination generally. I have to say, though, that it didn't stack up to Fahrenheit or the other dystopian works I've read. The character is thinly and difficult to understand at times, and the worldbuilding is also unconvincing - perhaps it resonates more in societies in which fundamentalist religions - be they Muslim, Christian or otherwise - are more present than in Australia. For these and other reasons, I wasn't particularly moved by it.

For my last in this instalment, I went back to my base. I had watched the TV adaptation last year of George R. R. Martin's Game of Thrones with great pleasure, and needed little provocation to grab a copy of the book from which its drawn. This is classic fantasy - great fat 1000-page tomes with lots of characters, taking part in dramatic action in a vividly drawn world undergoing great change. It has maps at the front! What I really like, though, is that its meaty - the characters are as stark (pun not intended) and gritty as the world in which they live, and Martin doesn't let the fantastic elements get in the way of the story - it is typically people and steel that decides characters' fates, not magic or dragons (though that will change at some point). It also avoids stereotypes all over the place - there is no Eddings-style Messiah story here - and he isn't afraid to let characters die when circumstances dictate that they will die. I have a copy of the second, and barring a Wheel-Of-Time style burnout (8000 pages of my life I will never get back!), I anticipate continuing to read the series as it evolves, until I don't enjoy it any more.

Travel Wrap

I had been doing so well with my reports on my trip through Europe, with 6 blog posts directly about it and another which was pretty strongly linked. Today, though, I'm abandoning what hopes I may have had of fully documenting the trip, with a hastily compiled summary of a time period which probably represents almost half of the time I was away.

I've already blogged about my weekend in Rennes and, like the weekend, much of the week that followed was spent in similar vain, in that it was a revisitation of my old life in Rennes.

My days were spent at Beaulieu, working with my old team. I say my old team, but times have moved on since I was there. Jean-Marc has moved up in the world, to be director of the laboratory, and Benoit B has moved into his role as team leader. There are a few more permanent researchers now - Benoit B, Benoit C, Olivier, Arnaud, Johann, Gerson and Noël (off the top of my head) - and it seems like a lot more doctoral students. The project as a whole faces an important year ahead, as the old project comes to an end and they prepare a proposal (or proposals) for new directions.

In the evenings I mostly hung out with M, who came over to visit on Monday. I had really been looking forward to showing her "my town", and some of the things I really like about it, but it was a very vague ambition, and I'm not sure to what extent it was met. We tried a range of crêperies and restaurants, including some that I'd frequented in the past. We met Nono - by chance, actually - for an apero, and had dinner with the Benoits. We tried a few new things too (new to me as well), most noticeably some really delicious macaroons from a chocolatier which I'd often walked past but never walked into. Oddly, we only went for one run, but it was a good one, along the canal

On the Friday we took a train, then a taxi, then a plane, then a bus, in order to get ourselves to Hammersmith, as I made a return to London (the previous visits having been 2003, 2004 and 2007, I think) for the trip's one week of true vacation (on my part - M was back to work).

Saturday was largely given to the Boat Race, the annual rowing 8s competition between Oxford and Cambridge along the Thames, in no small part because the house in which I was graciously hosted was ideally placed to watch the event. Being just a few yards from the river, and with a rooftop view giving both up and down the stretches graced by the boats, had lead to a call - well made if not well heeded - for a barbecue to celebrate. It was impressive to see just how many people turn out to watch, and with what enthusiasm they do so. I was on the light blues for the day, courtesy of my cousin's involvement in a few instalments, many years ago now.

In the end, the race itself was equal parts spectacle and debacle. About 2/3 of the way through the race, with Oxford perhaps ahead by a nose and well placed in light of the remaining bends, a swimmer emerged directly in front of the Oxford boat, and both crews were instructed to stop rowing. The guy, an Australian purportedly demonstrating against elitism, was unharmed, but what followed was a curious half hour in which the boats moved back up the river to eventually restart from just before where the incident had occurred. After the restart, a clash of oars left Oxford one blade down, which allowed Cambridge to cruise ahead to a comfortable win.

What was perhaps more curious about the event, to me at least, was the nature of the crowds. In the evening, hours after the official proceedings had mutely wound down, we headed to a local pub for a pint. What we found was a curious mix of would-be toffs (though I remain unconvinced that they weren't regular punters wearing velvet jackets out of irony) and others who fit to a T the drunken stereotype of the drunken English soccer fan, people who I would never have thought of as being interested in such a historically elitist event.

A week in London would, to someone else, represent an enormous opportunity for tourism, but I made little of it, really. I got to a few attractions - a morning in the national gallery, a lunchtime concert at St Martin-in-the-Field (Piazzola!), an afternoon at the Victoria & Albert - but left rather more unattended. I did manage a very pleasant day travelling out by train to Moreton-in-Marsh to see some family friends - whose acquaintance I was long overdue to make - for what turned out to be a very enjoyable and affable lunch.

What I spent most of the week doing, in reality, was running and reading. I managed 4 runs: one out to Richmond Park and back along the Tow Path, one past Craven Cottage down to Putney Bridge and back, a third down past Barnes and Chiswick Bridges and almost to Kew Bridge, and another short one to Mortlake, for a coffee, before coming back again along the Tow Path. I suspect that over the journey, I played the role of anchor to M&T, who were both in training for much longer (some would say preposterously long) events, and were clearly much fitter than I was.

The other activity for the week was reading. I borrowed up a book on arrival in London, from one of my absent hosts, and an iPad during the week, and alternated during the week of reading the former while at "home base", and the latter while out and about. I have since finished one, and will soon finish the latter, but I will leave a discussion of the merits of these and other books to another post. It is quite likely that, with my return to Australia, this blog will return to its regular programming of apologetically delayed book reviews. Still, hopefully this travel diary has served as an amusing distraction

Monday, 23 April 2012

It was the best of rides, it was the worst of rides

About 18 months ago I posted my initial impressions of CityCycle, Brisbane's beleaguered public bike hire scheme. At the time I doubted whether I would use the scheme much, despite my year-long subscription, and that doubt proved more prophetic than I could have imagined. That day and its two rides wound up being the sum total of my use of the scheme over 12 months - hardly good value for my $60 subscription. It simply was never convenient. Any time I was at ease carrying a helmet around, it was possible and preferable to take my own bike.

By contrast, coming back to my very verbose travel diary, on the Saturday of my week in Rennes, I found myself needing to get out to Brequigny to watch a basketball game, and I decided that I would give the Rennes bike hire scheme, Le Velo Star, a try. I signed up for a 7-day subscription, for 5 euros (a shade under A$7 at the moment), and a few minutes later, armed with a code, I was able to roll out past the station on my new steed.

I ended up riding every day I was in Rennes, so at 14 trips for $7, it certainly yielded better value for me than my CityCycle subscription. The bikes themselves bear a strong resemblance to the CityCycle offerings - heavy, fairly low, 3 gears, but fairly serviceable provided you stuck to reasonable terrain. The Rennes bikes, though, are considerably older, and it shows. I had a number of bikes with technical issues - slipping drive train, only one gear, a wonky pedal - but for the kinds of journeys I was making, it wasn't much of an issue, and if it had been, I could easily have stopped at an intervening station and transferred to another.

The experience of riding along without a helmet was disconcerting at first. Even while I was living in France, I always rode with a helmet, and if I were to live there again, I would do so again. I quickly got comfortable riding without one, though. The relatively slow pace encouraged by the bikes at hand make it a little safer, I think, and the roads are well suited to cyclists, with ample cycle lanes of generous width, and no conflict with parked cars. At no time during the week (admittedly a small sample) did I feel at all endangered by the cars.

Tempting as it is to consider this as a vote for a revision of helmet laws, the link between cyclist safety and driver attitudes, traffic conditions and bike lane availability and quality makes it a very complicated question. I remain undecided. One way or another, though, public bike hire in Rennes has it all over public bike hire in Brisbane.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

return to Rennes III

From Berlin it was on to Rennes. Friday afternoon was spent with Jacques in Potsdam shopping, successfully, for toys for his children and, unsuccessfully, an iPad for me. From there we caught a train and a bus to Tegel airport, where we had a drink before saying goodbye, as I boarded my plane for Paris and he awaited his to Luxembourg.

Landing at Paris-Orly, I caught a taxi to Montparnasse. It was the first time I'd caught a taxi in Paris, and I was impressed at how fast it was; I had anticipated much more congestion and, to be honest, expense. Anyway, I got to the station in good time to retrieve my TGV ticket, but unfortunately, the SNCF machines still refuse to accept Australian credit cards, so I was forced to board the train ticketless. It was very full, with quite a few people standing, without tickets but without seat reservations, while I sat a little sheepishly with a seat reservation but no ticket. When I alerted the controller to my situation, he seemed unperturbed, and said that when he returned, I could buy a ticket and reclaim my original purchase at a later date, which sounded pretty reasonable. I never saw him again.

By the time I got to Rennes, I was pretty tired, and grateful to be staying in a hotel near the station. Or so I thought - despite my fairly firm protestations, the hotel had no reservation of my booking. Later, looking at my booking statement, I read to my chagrin, that I had in fact only booked from the following night. Nonetheless, they found me a room, which although tiny was a welcome sight at the end of a long day of trains, planes and automobiles.

Were I more disciplined, or had I not been two weeks on the road already, I would have risen early and gotten myself to the marché des lices, Rennes' most impressive tourist attraction. Being who and were I was, though, I took the alternate path of lying in late, and wandering into town only after midday to have some lunch - galette-cidre-crêpes, bien sûr! - and along the way suss out some options for laundry. Following that I spent the bulk of the afternoon in a laundromat, reading my book and waiting on machines. It took me back to my first months in my apartment in St-Thérèse, before I bought a washing machine, when so many weekend afternoons incorporated similar trips to a different (and, to be honest, a more pleasant) laundromat, often with a novel. There are worse ways to pass the time, to be honest, if the book is good enough.

In the evening, I headed out to Bréquigny for a nostalgic evening watching the girls from Avenir de Rennes run around. Rather than catching the bus, as I might have back in the day, I bought myself a week-long subscription to the public bike hire scheme, and grabbed a dumpy but servicable little steed to roll down past the station, women's prison and familiar metro stops out to the edge of town. Since I left, the team had moved its games from the quaint but often cramped quarters of rue Papu out to the more capacious and more professional-feeling Salle Colette Besson (apparently a French sporting heroine from the Mexico Olympics).

Once there, I started looking around for Véronique, whom I was slated to meet there. She wasn't to be found, but while queueing for a ticket I found Soso, lingering outside with a kloppe (as is her wont), who was another on my list of people to say hello to. Eventually Véronique, Yann and Rosalie joined me, and we went inside to join a healthy crowd, including large and enthusiastic delegations from some small towns outside Rennes - Vezin-le-Coquet and, I think, La Chapelle-des-Fougeretz. I've always been impressed by Avenir's engagement with the youth basketball communities from these towns.

The game itself was entertaining for a little while. The Rennes girls outsized and outplayed their opponents fairly convincingly early on. Once the lead was built, the foot lifted a little, and the sting and interest went out of the game, as Rennes cruised to an easy victory by 20 or so points. Its a different team than the one I used to watch - only one player is still playing whom I had seen play previously, and they play under a new coach - but with some of the same characteristics. The two veterans - a guard and a centre - play an important leadership role in the structure of their game, but most of the players are very young.

At half-time and after the game I was able to catch up, with the Blancs, with Soso, and also with some other old friends - Sophie Brisson, Nono, and the now-very-pregnant Cecille. Still, it was difficult to escape the feeling that this was the life I used to lead, and that both my life and the club's have moved a long way since the days when these games were such an important part of my life. I'm not sure whether its sad or inevitable or a sign of progress, or all of those, but it remains a cherished part of my story.

Berlin wrap-up

Having been so energetic about blogging during the first week and half of my trip through Europe, it behooves me to finish off the story a little.

My original purpose for being in Berlin, other than establishing and reaffirming relationships with various other researchers, was to attend the DSAL workshop, where I was coauthor of a paper with some collaborators from Germany and Luxembourg. That was done by Tuesday, so in theory at least, I was a little more at my leisure for the rest of the week. In practice, it changed little; I wasn't presenting the paper anyway, and we in fact spent more of the week working on a paper submitted the following week.

During the DSAL workshop, in one of the duller talks (yes, there are dull talks at academic workshops - a shocking revelation, I know), when I wasn't plotting running tracks, I discovered that there was a concert in town on Wednesday night by the Shai Maestro Trio.

Shai Maestro is a young Israeli pianist who played on a couple of albums by Avishai Cohen, who has in recent years been probably my favourite jazz performer. Maestro's playing had really impressed me, and I have been looking forward to his new album (now released, in fact), so I was pretty excited at the prospect of being able to see him live. The gig was at 10pm in town, necessitating a train a little after 9, and upon inspection, the conference social event, a boat cruise, was scheduled in the programme to finish at 9, right next to the train station, so I figured I was all good.

The boat cruise was pretty good, out on the lake around which I had run earlier in the week. The company was also good - as I had been for much of the week, I surrounded myself with French-speakers - Jacques, Max, Jean-Marc (who came along for the Wednesday and Thursday morning), Phillipe from Nice and Joerg from Montreal. We had some really interesting discussions, about French politics, Swiss ice-skating, and Dan Simmons novels, and the time passed quickly.

By around 8:45pm, though, I was getting antsy - the boat showed no sign of returning to port, and time was marching on. Time continued its march, and by around 9:30pm, still not ashore, I had resigned myself to missing not only the start of the gig, but most of it. We ended up getting back to shore a little after 10pm, and with a 15 minute wait for a train, I decided that the game was lost, and headed dejectedly back to my hotel.

I felt particularly guilty at missing the concert as I had boasted over Skype to Paul, another Avishai devotee and Shai Maestro admirer, about going to the gig, and telling him I had been in Berlin and still missed it was an unappealing prospect.

As much as I had a good time on the boat cruise, I'd still rather have seen the gig.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

More running and eating in Babelsberg

I went out for another run last night. Based on advice from a local Oracle researcher at the conference on Monday, I had modified my original plan, of skirting around the northern edge of Babelsberg, to instead head across a bridge and up to Klein Glenicke, and the Volkspark of the same name.

Like my previous run, my route took me along a shared cycling/pedestrian path flanked on one side by the shore of the lake and on the other by forest in the first early blooms of spring. I get the feeling that the Volkspark, like Park Babelsberg, had a few old buildings hidden away in the forest set back and up from the shore. Unlike my previous run, though, I was further from home, so I was a little loathe to take diversions. So I pretty much just stuck to the lakeside, stopping from time to time at the jetties or benches to take photos across the lake. There were a bunch of other cyclists (mostly) and runners (a few) out on the path, and I was in a pretty good mood.

In the end, I probably went a little further than I had planned. I had entertained the idea of stopping at a bar, Wirsthaus Moorlake, squirrelled away in a bay, but I felt good, so I ran on another kilometre or two to another bar at Pfaueninsel, a tiny little ferry stop for people going across to the castles on the island across the strait.

On my way home, I ran past the local soccer stadium, home of the Babelsberg club in the Bundesliga 3 (although possibly not for long). They had a match on against the oddly named Kickers Offenbach (which they went on to lose), and it was interesting to see the enthusiasm generated, in the form of giant flags and the full stadium, and to hear, in the guise of singing and, I suppose, the full stadium. There were police outside the stadium, too, which I guess is the flipside of the enthusiasm (although I'd argue that this is more characteristic of soccer enthusiasm than general sporting enthusiasm), but it was still nice to see.

After the run, I met up with Jacques and Max for dinner. We hit up what I guess is a typical German restaurant, and had pretty typical food, I guess: currywurst, schnitzel, and a giant plate of ribs for me, which almost certainly negated any health benefits of my 12km run, but was a great source of sticky pleasure while I was eating them :)

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

An evening in Potsdam

On Sunday night I arrived in Potsdam for the second of my four-week swing through Europe (with apologies to British separatists). So far, I have been impressed by how helpful everyone has been. On leaving the airport, I immediately struggled with my extremely weak grasp of German, trying and failing to buy a ticket on the bus. Fortunately, though, a German hostess helped me out, and I managed to navigate my way to Charlottenburg S-bahn and from there to Babelsberg and my hotel. After orienting myself, and not having colleagues to meet (for a change), I decided to head out for a run.

Babelsberg, it seems, and Potsdam more broadly, is surrounded by parks, forests and lakes. According to google maps (thank goodness for hotel wifi), the closest of these green and blue blobs to my hotel is Park Babelsberg, so it was in that direction that I set out, headphones in, and braced against the single-figure temperature.

I had probably run about 300 metres when I became aware of a man running beside me wearing business attire and waving. As I stopped, so did he, bent over puffing and panting to regain his breath, before rising and handing me the key to my hotel room. Apparently it had fallen from my pocket a while back, and he had been chasing me to return it. I think my lack of German made it difficult for him to tell me to be careful as sternly as he would have wanted, and it certainly made it difficult for me to be as effusive in my thanks as his good deed warranted.

Ed: At this point I would love to embed the map for the run, along with the pictures I took, but runkeeper's embeddable maps are broken at the moment. Anyway, it can be found at, including a few pictures.

I ran on, past the local football stadium and across into Park Babelsberg. Almost immediately I was greeted by what a naive Australian would call a castle, but which I suppose in reality is just one building amongst some kind of feudal estate. As I ran on I encountered more, and more various, buildings, in very good condition and with scatterings of people wandering around looking at them. I ran on, along the edge of the lake (the Tiefer See), past a bar serving cyclists watching the sunset over the lake, around to a small bridge near a university embedded into the forest.

Running back, I abandoned my simple and easily followed route, and just wandered amongst the little trails winding through the park, heading towards and around towers and stately homes at whim. By the time I got back, I had racked up 7 or 8km, which I was happy with, given how long I had gone without running.

After showering, I again headed out, in search of dinner. I wandered into an Italian restaurant near the hotel, and sat down. Throughout the meal, I answered the waiter's fairly predictable questions in stuttering, broken German. He obviously knew I didn't speak much, but he humoured me and allowed me to struggle on, which I liked. The food itself, some bruschetta followed by tagliatelle with a gorgonzola, spinach and walnut sauce, was pretty good. I made the mistake, though, of ordering Lambrusco on the strength that it was the only red wine I recognised. I should perhaps have considered that the basis for my recognition was more of notoriety than renown - it was a pretty ordinary excuse for wine, especially for my Australian palate. Nonetheless, I was pretty happy sitting there, as the other patrons chatted away in German and I stared contentedly out the window at the sleepy boulevard.

Monday, 26 March 2012

Oslo a go-go

My doubts about my visit to Oslo were quickly allayed by being in Oslo. The first few days of meetings were a little dry, but with enough interesting presentations, and more importantly enough opportunity to meet the people doing interesting things, to keep my attention. In between, I managed to get out to see a little of the town, principally in the evenings.

Monday night I went down to the harbour for dinner with a couple of other people from the conference, which drove home both the expense but also the appeal of the Oslo waterfront.

Tuesday we had a dinner at a cultural museum on the curiously-named presque-île of Bygdøy, a strange affair whose central feature was the passing around the room of a bowl of beer, from which everyone drank.

Wednesday night found us at what seemed to be Norway's national construction industry awards night, an incredibly kitch affair with what could only be characterised as "cock rock", each category's nominees being ushered in by "We are the Champions" or similar. As it happened, this was the only English used for the night, and the combination of kitch music, plentiful wine, and the complete incomprehensibility of the dialogue made for a pretty good time at our table.

Friday saw an end to the official conference proceedings, leaving me to my own devices for a few days. I had arranged to stay with Franck and his family, and he also invited me in to SINTEF to give a presentation on Friday morning. I cobbled something together, and had a good time discussing the mix of MDE and BIM with Franck, Arnor and others in their group. In the afternoon, at Franck's recommendation, I took a T-bane to its terminus at Frognerseteren, high up in the hills above the harbour.

I imagine that in years less warm than this, there would have been more people up there using it as a base for cross-country skiing, as there were a handful of pretty little trails radiating out away from the train platform. Despite the facts that (a) the warm weather had made the trails simultaneously less than ideal for both skiing and walking, and (b) I was wearing town shoes rather than skis or even hiking boots, I was determined to see some scenery, and set out down a trail in the general direction of the appealingly named Tryvannstua. I wandered pretty randomly, to be honest, and learnt a lot about types of snow, specifically which types of glistening snow were slippery, or were likely to admit my wholly inappropriate shoes to wholly uncomfortable depths. In the end, I called a halt to proceedings and did an about-face what must have been only a few hundred metres short of Tryvannstua, but not having attained my randomly selected destination did not take away from my enjoyment of the surroundings. I suspect that had I been there a month earlier, on skis, or a month later, with leaves on the trees and flowers on the ground, it would have been more pleasant, but after a week in meeting rooms staring out windows, I certainly appreciated being outdoors.

On the way down the hill I stopped at Holmenkollen, site of Oslo's skijump, likely built for a long-past Winter Olympics, but looking a little forlorn without its coating of snow. Next door there was a track set up for some sort of nordic skiing sprint event, with lots of people walking around preparing TV gear, ticket offices and the like for the finals on the Saturday, while what I presume were the lesser skiers went down the hill attempting to qualify.

Friday night, Saturday and Sunday morning I spent with Franck, Valentine and their son Sacha, much as I did on my visit there last year. I really like hanging out with their little family, even if at times I feel like a bit of a third wheel, when Sacha plays up (I suspect sometimes for my benefit), or when real life just takes a hand. I hope that one day I'll be able to return the favour with some of my European friends, and share my life in Australia with them as well.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Jetlagged in Oslo

I find myself lying in bed at 5am in an Oslo hotel room, having been irretrievably awake for the past 4 hours. Normally when I travel (which isn't to suggest that I travel particularly often), I am fairly good with managing my body clock, but the last two nights have been less than optimal. So, I guess I'll blog.

This is a work trip, basically, and I'm really torn about whether I like the idea of it. On one hand, I get to catch up with lots of really good friends - Franck here in Oslo, Jacques in Potsdam, hopefully various people in Rennes, and Meg in London - but on the other hand, it comes at a fairly inconvenient time.

On a personal note, I finally finished the at-times tortuous process of buying an apartment, and moved my things in on Friday. By leaving so quickly, I'm deferring, and in some ways losing, the process of discovery that comes with moving to a new suburb - finding out where the good places are to eat, which spaces in the apartment I want to hang out in, what I like about it and what I don't. It was with some longing that I read reports from my family members who are doing some of this discovery on my behalf.

From a work point of view, its a mixed blessing. The 4 weeks preceding my departure had been truly insane, with my teaching, research and service commitments all ramping up at the same time, and I had been running around trying desperately to keep my head above water, in a way that really wasn't sustainable. I needed a break of some sort. Heading overseas allows some of those commitments - service, for example - to subside a little, but others, teaching in particular, are deceptive. Although I'm free of lecturing, lecturing really isn't the draining or stressful part of teaching, and I still have course coordination duties which are probably slightly harder in absentia.

This kind of equivocation about travel is new to me, and I'm not sure what to think of it.

Monday, 13 February 2012

the plot

"... discussing post-war US literature
with a girl whose upper arm read 'Fiction'
like it might have been type-written.
When I asked her its significance
she said she sometimes took reminding
what she wanted to be doing
whether reading it or writing." 
It seems that this blog has devolved in recent times into a series of brief summaries of the books I've been reading. Now, this is far from the worst of the various one-note themes to which it has clung - "I'm homesick and don't speak the language" and "This is what I did on the weekend" spring to mind - but its not as wide a subject matter as I would like to imagine myself capable of writing. Nor does it really paint a representative picture of what I spend my time on, though its resurrection as one of my leisure activities is something I enjoy.

One of the things I like about fiction, or at least about the books I have been reading, is the presence of a dominant storyline. There isn't always one central character, and there isn't always one location in which the story takes place, but typically there is one thread of activity, or overriding theme, which serves as a spine to give the story structure and direction.

This is not something that can be said of life. Or, at least, not of my life at present.

My work life, in particular, seems at present to be, and for the past year to have been, an exercise in juggling a dozen or more little endeavours at once. Preparing for lectures, dealing with assignments and exams, keeping up with administrative stuff (I handle Masters admissions and credit assessment for transferring students), helping PhD students, undergraduate project students, Masters project students, reviewing conference and journal papers, writing papers, and trying to develop and sustain the handful of international collaborations I have. It often seems like I spend my time just pecking away at each of these enough to keep them from burying me, and I'm left with little time to actually focus on and make inroads on significant problems.

The same is true to a lesser extent of my life outside work. I give snatches of time to sport, or to reading, or to TV or games, or these life measures that other people seem to find so important, like buying a house or getting a car (I find it a little baffling that others consider either of these an achievement). I spend time with friends, but not nearly as much as I should. I visit my family, but not as often as I should. But in neither my work nor my personal life do I feel like I have a dominant storyline, a central quest, a single light on the hill to which my time is contributing.

Now, I should make it clear, I'm not having some kind of existential crisis, bemoaning a lack of meaning in my life. I'm not suggesting that others have a strong sense of their role in life, of some focal point (vanishing point?) towards which their endeavours are leading. Nor am I saying that I'm doing too many things, really. I do feel like there is value in these things I'm doing. If I didn't, I wouldn't be doing them (or in some cases, I'd be able to stop deluding myself that I will get around to them). Its just an interesting contrast between the stories that I read, and the story that I'm writing with my days and hours.

Monday, 6 February 2012

negligence in reading

It has been months since I blogged about my reading. However, this indicates a negligence of blogging, rather than a negligence of reading. In fact, I've gotten through a pretty decent pile of books since I last wrote, about A Moveable Feast. As I've done in the past following such periods of silence, I'll fall back to a list of brief summaries rather than trying to cover the backlog a post at a time. So, in chronological order ...

  • Rabbit, Run (John Updike): Updike tells a nice portrait of the American mid-life crisis, or perhaps really early-life crisis, of a middle-American man struggling with the prospect of an ordinary life with an alcoholic wife and a second baby on the way. He picks up and leaves, but struggles with his sense of duty to his past life, and ends up going home, which has its own problems. I felt like this book had a lot in common with Continental Drift, but with a sharper focus on the protagonist rather than the time, although it certainly does have commentary on the evolving nature of community and the relationship with the church. It won't go on my list of really great books, but its certainly enough to make me go back for the others in the 4-book series at some point in the future.
  • His Dark Materials (Philip Pullman): This was an anthology of the 3 books in the trilogy (Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass), which I bought on a whim, having seen it a list of significant books and not having read it during my teenage years, during which this genre was my bread-and-butter (so many years wasted reading David Eddings and Robert Jordan). I'd seen the movie, which was actually pretty good, but unsurprisingly, the books are better. Their extra length lends the opportunity for more depth and breadth of characters, which both expand as the series progresses (although the first book was probably still my favourite). Some of the comments I'd read had lead me to fairly strong atheist/anti-religious themes, but they weren't there, or at least were subtle and strongly focussed on the narrative and not on an external agenda, and I think in this case the books are stronger for it.
  • Down Under (Bill Bryson): My mother had given me this book while I was in France, as a gift for someone, but for one reason or another I never gave it. To be honest, I was slightly apprehensive about reading it, and only picked it up because I wanted something light to pass the time on a bus trip. Despite that, I have to confess I quite liked it. I like to think I know a fair bit about Australia already, but I still found lots of things in the book I didn't know about, and I enjoyed it for that. Having said that, it really was the Australian content I liked, and I can't see myself going out of my way to chase more Bryson stuff. There were parts of this book where he made generalisations that really annoyed me, and generally I had a sense that his way of looking at the world would become increasingly annoying. Still, no real regrets.
  • One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn): It has long been on my list to "read some of the Russians". There are some great Russian names in literature: Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Nabokov, and many more, and to date I think my only foray into their work had been an aborted attempt at Crime and Punishment (against which I still hold a grudge). I found this novella on my parents' shelves, and like so many of the "big names" in 20th century literature (Steinbeck and Hemingway come to mind), I found it really very easy to read. The story does what it says on the box; Denisovich is a prisoner in a Russian gulag, and the book tells the story of his day from waking up in the cold, through a day spent laying bricks on a power station, to his return to camp. Its very matter-of-fact, and doesn't wallow in his situation, which I suppose is instructive in itself, but it does paint a good picture of Denisovich and various other prisoners, how they came to be in the prison and how they pass their time and interact.
  • Eucalyptus (Murray Bail): I had read another Murray Bail book, Holden's Performance, last year, and enjoyed it a lot, but it is Eucalyptus for which he is probably best known, so it had been on my list. To be honest, I probably didn't enjoy it quite as much as the previous one, but it certainly is an interesting read. Bail is a very elegiac writer - his stories kind of float, and at times tread the line between this world and another, more whimsical world, and this is more true in Eucalyptus, which is at times part novel and part fairy tale. I actually bought this book as a present for my mother; like the father in the story, my mother's block is littered with eucalypts, and part of the book's structure is a series of descriptions of different eucalypt varieties. For me, though, without my mother's knowledge of native Australian flora, this was no barrier; as much as these descriptions guide the structure, they in no way dominate the text or affect the story, of a father who promises the hand of his beautiful, cloistered daughter to whoever can name all of the eucalypt varieties on his property. I didn't find the ending 100% satisfying, but it was certainly an interesting read.
  • A Room With A View (E.M. Forster): Forster is another of those many names that I've seen on great books/authors lists - typically for this book, or Howard's End, or A Passage To India, but had never read. I had seen him written off in one or two interviews with other authors - possibly Nabokov in his Paris Review interview, although the overwhelming impression from that review is not of Nabokov's opinions, but of his opinionatedness - but I went into this book with a fairly open mind. I wasn't excited by its first half, of Lucy and the other expats and their time in Italy (most Florence). The picture of an expat community living alongside, but apart from, the local Italians, rang false with my expatriate experience. I don't doubt its authenticity, but it represents for me the "wrong" way to go about living in another country. As the story moves back to England, Forster develops more his themes looking at class and propriety, and the English reserve, but although I'm sure at the time these were valid and pointed criticisms, for me it all seems a bit tame and tentative. By the end, as much as Lucy seemed to attain her liberation from these things, I couldn't help but feel like she hadn't really moved that far. I also felt like Cold Comfort Farm, admittedly a very different kind of book, made some of the points better.
  • In The Winter Dark (Tim Winton): I've read a few books by Tim Winton, and not yet been disappointed. Even those without the reputation of a Cloudstreet, I've found pretty satisfying, even just as an easy read, so I was pretty comfortable picking this one out from the library. The story is of 4 people living besides one another in the Australian country - not farmers per se, but by no means in a town - and the way they react to the arrival of a beast, never revealed, preying on livestock. Its somewhat darker in tone than Winton's normal fair, but after a slow start - the stuff about seeing other people's dreams never really worked for me - it picks up pace, and reaches a nice climax, before finding an unexpected but not incongruous conclusion.
  • Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (John Le Carré): The only other John Le Carré book I have read was The Constant Gardener, back in 2005. In that case I went on to see the movie, which was an interesting experience - an important one, even, in terms of the way I think about movie adaptations. This time was not dissimilar. Although I had heard of this book - along with The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, it is perhaps Le Carré's best-known - and despite an enthusiasm for Le Carré, it was the book's recent adaptation into a feature film which prompted me to pick it up. The story follows the recently, but not voluntarily, retired intelligence officer George Smiley, as he investigates a report of a double-agent inside the British secret service, which leads generally to a retrospective investigation that lead to his retirement. Le Carré does such a nice job of weaving details, and mixing in enough jargon to really immerse the reader in the spy milieu, and the result is a very compelling story, and entirely befitting its reputation.
  • Camouflage (Murray Bail): Perhaps it wasn't the size of this book that made me pick it up, but it didn't hurt. At just 85 small-format pages, this is a curious edition of 2 short stories, the first about  a piano-tuner who is drafted to work on camouflaging a WWII air base in the red centre of Australia, and the second about a boy's memory of the development of a relationship between his sister and a neighbour. The latter story, in particular, reinforced my impression of Bail as a fantasy writer, as it manages a lovely little transition from a real-world scene into what feels a dream sequence.
Wow, so there's that. A few years ago I set myself a resolution of reading more, and since then my annual reading has risen from 8 to 12 to last year's 21. The number is not the end-game, obviously, but I feel its been successful because I've really broadened my reading horizons, and I've enjoyed discovering new writers and new styles. Using a number has probably inadvertently pushed me towards shorter forms like novellas, but I'm entirely comfortable with that - it's a format I like, and if it leads me to a broader range of storytellers and stories, then that's a good thing. This year I've set myself a number of 25 over on goodreads, which I don't think will be a barrier numerically (I read 5 in January). Hopefully it will bring me the joy that last year's endeavours did.