The Unexpected Vacation of George Thring

A canoe on the banks of the River ThamesBooks are always nice and easy to write about. The books don’t complain, and the related posts help me addressing the typical small talk party situation:

[Someone] So, ummm, what do you read?
[Me] Oh, I read all sorts of books. I like epic fantasy and enjoy contemporary Japanese authors, among other things.
[Someone] Oh, how interesting. Give me an example!
[Me] Oh sure, it’s called…. Ummmm…. by… hmmmm.

So, here’s one of my recently read books:

The Unexpected Vacation of George Thring, by Alastair Puddick.

I found it delightful. At first it feels like yet another instalment of the awkward-person-stumbles-awkwardly-through-life novels and it is, but in a different kind of awkwardness. Very enjoyable and highly recommended.

Temps Perdu

DSC_0697I recommend that everyone should undertake a journey aboard a ship. By that, I don’t mean a 3 hour river cruise with a Dixieland band and Chablis for all, and I don’t mean a 3 week cruise of the Caribbean either; no, I recommend a 25 hour crossing from Poole, UK, to Gijon, Spain. Once arrived, you can enjoy a lovely holiday in Spain or Portugal, then take the reverse trip back. It is these two 25 trips I am talking about.

There’s nothing to worry about, and nothing that needs to be done. You couldn’t do anything even if you wanted to. It’s the perfect opportunity to read your book without a sense of guilt about the tasks left undone while reading, for taking time for your manicure or pedicure or idle daydreaming.

I read Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale For The Time Being with great pleasure.

While I’m at it, I should also recommend Jonas Jonasson’s The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden, which I read between the two sea journeys. This book made me laugh and think of Tom Sharpe a lot.

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Red October

DSCF3674Following Tom Clancy’s recent demise, I was reminded on The Hunt for Red October. I’ve seen and liked the movie a few times, so now I got the e-Book onto my Kindle for only £0.99. At this price, I didn’t mind terrible spelling mistakes, according to one reviewer. (I noticed only a few.)

I enjoy the book even though I cringe at the truly terrible description of most technical details, particularly when it comes to computer technology. I guess this was pretty hard to imagine in 1984, fair enough.

I also watched the movie again. The movie condenses 440 pages into 135 minutes, so I expected some Hollywood-esque dramatization and simplification of the plot.

Well. well. well. I have watched movies for which I knew the book before, and generally find the book superior. Never before have I seen such a discrepancy though. It’s like someone read the book a long time ago, summarized if from memory within 3 minutes, and somebody else then turned this report into a movie script. Needless to say that the Americans can defend themselves in the movie, no need to call in the British allies.

I can only recommend that you read the book if you like the movie. While you’d quickly understand why Tom Clancy was never awarded the Pulitzer Price or Nobel Price for literature, it’s a good page-turner type of read. You can always mumble in your head whenever Sean Connery Captain Ramius speaks.


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Within The Den

DSC_1449I am reading Lack London’s arctic novels right now. The Call Of The Wild at first, and it’s companion, White Fang, right now. When I read these books first, many years ago as a teenager, I didn’t understand much beyond the adventure, but I now appreciate the superb story-telling and writing Jack’s done. He wrote this stuff around 1900, give or take a few years.

There was no David Attenborough to explain it all, and neither Heinz Sielmann or Professor Grzimek were born at the time (Professor Grzimek was close, being born in 1909, but he wasn’t born as a professor or a natural world TV presenter). There were no tiny or remote controlled cameras to be send inside a wolf’s den in Jack’s days. Watching modern wildlife documentaries makes us think that all this knowledge is only just emerging thanks to modern technology and brave cameramen, but if you think this is so, you should read Jack’s books.

The description of events inside the den and the details of the wolves’ awareness show a great deal of knowledge, imagination and “educated guessing” on Jack’s part. It’s quite something.

The most revolutionary part, in my opinion, is the fact that he never humanizes the animals. He describes them as beings aware of their surroundings, as beings with intelligence, decision-making facility, the capability to learn and that of a consciousness, but he never presents a dog’s or wolves’ thoughts in human terms. There is no trivializing here at all, and a great deal more of realism, and a great deal less of adventure than what I remembered from my youth.

I got Jack London’s Complete Works on my Kindle now. The biggest e-Book I have, cause he was a short-lived yet prolific writer, and I am in love with his work.


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The Wheel

japanese-garden-sfAs some of you may know, I’ve been busy reading Robert Jordan’s fantasy epic Wheel of Time for a while, which comes at approximately 11000 pages in print (or a few Megabytes in Kindle). I am now half way into volume 10 of 14, Crossroads of Twilight. I haven’t read much else in quite a while, and I am ready for a break.

These are fine fantasy novels, and I applaud anyone capable of writing a tale of enormous proportions well enough that I, after finishing each of the previous nine volumes, immediately wanted to continue reading with the next one. Since the Wheel of Time is often compared to the other fantasy epic, George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, praise should be given to Wheel of Time for coming closest to Song of Ice and Fire. Closest, mind you, but not close.

The trouble with Wheel of Time is that each volume follows the same pattern: a necessary but tedious prologue is followed some building-up of action and conflict. The centre 65% of the book tell the tale without much significant progress, and events spiral to high speed and conclusions in the last 20%.

I find the central tedium increasingly hard to get through, especially since a friend made me aware of Haruki Murakami’s latest offering, 1Q84. I have now put the Wheel of Time aside and started on 1Q84. I’m still in the first of three books, but already love it. Haruki Murakami is the master of the modern surreal, and the translation is beautiful as far as I may be able to judge beauty in a foreign language.

All I need now is those extra 4 hours per day, and the skill not to fall asleep as soon as my head hits the pillow.

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Lost In Translation

DSCF6039I love my Larousse Gastronomique. Seriously, I do. I don’t think it obsoletes all other books about food or cooking, but if you had only one, it would have to be the Larousse Gastronomique without the shadow of a doubt.

One serious problem though: my French just barely reaches survival levels, and is not fit for reading this excellent source of information in its original language. I own an English version, thus. However, in many cases, I look for a French dish, and I know it by its French name, but the English edition’s index is arranged in alphabetical order of the translated names.

A multi-lingual translation cross-reference is missing, mapping a dish or ingredient’s native language name to the translated name. German Bratwurst would appear under B, and Vietnamese Phó would show under P, and Tarte Flambée would show under T, maybe with a second listing under F for Flammkuchen. All entries would resolve to the translated name used in this book, such as Noodle Soup for Phó, and of course the related page number.

It seems so simple and essential, I can’t believe they haven’t done it. Maybe they will now. 


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Space Hoppers, Life, the Universe, and All Else

DSCF2191Watching a science program on the telly, I wonder what’s wrong with physicists. We’ve all heard of parallel universes, and some of you will have heard of hovering membranes in no less then ten dimensions of space, plus time. Others speak of time itself suddenly jumping into existence. Wobbling strings, and what-not’s, all trying to explain the ultimate root from which you and I, and the universe around us, grow.

I realize that I am no more than a couch physicist, but as one of those, I find the whole thing straight forward: a star collapses into a black hole. Sometimes, a very big star collapses into a large black hole. The combined nuclei now may take more space than a pin head, if the collapsed star happens to be big enough. Every now and then, this black hole is near enough, and big enough, another  cosmic corpus to suck it in. Once in a very rare while, this becomes a self-propelling ever-sucking, ever-growing black hole, with a core of infinite density where all the nuclei combine. This grows to ping-pong ball size, then a football, then become even as big as a Space Hopper! Just when the core size hits the magical Space Hopper threshold, the density in its own very core is big enough for the whole thing to explode. I’m sure you can imagine that this will make a pretty big bang. Once in a while and by pure chance, the dust settles and becomes a universe like ours, our galaxy, our planet, you and I.

Our universe will probably end as cosmic dust, to play no further role. The chances of being part of the extraordinarily unlikely circumstances leading to the big bang in the first place, let alone to you and me (as detailed in the W7 theory, see above), multiplied by the chances of being part of the same thing again, is a number tiny enough to defy even the most imaginative of minds. In other words, it won’t happen.

So, face it. We kind-of know where we come from (see above). We will never know anything about life our ancestors prior to the big bang. We also know that we will, in all probability, play no further role in the universe. This one, and all parallel ones.

So, face it. Enjoy life and make it as peaceful and long-lasting as possible.

Forget what lies an unimaginable time ahead, or in the past. Focus on the present, give or take a few million years if you like, and get on with business.

I am quite sympathetic to the urge to research, discover and explain, but there are limits. Some things are just they way they are, whatever these ways may be, and there is not even a need to invent a God to explain any of that. Just life with it.  I do, and I recommend you do, too.


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Magic Common Denominator

Remarkable Rocks, South Australia In all my reading of fantasy literature, I find it interesting to observe a common understanding of some fundamental building blocks that make magic:

  • Magic is ancient, often related with the old language or the old tongue.
  • Dragons are, or were, the grand masters of magic.
  • The first law of thermodynamics holds; a magician exercising magic loses energy in the process.

I guess you could also argue this demonstrates the limited fantasy of fantasy writers, and I guess there’d be some truth in this claim. It’s just incredibly hard to come up with novel ideas that are original and intriguing.

These days, I take pleasure in reading Anne Bishop‘s Black Jewels Trilogy. I struggle to describe these books as great fantasy and reserve this label for the insane craze of George R. R. Martin‘s truly epic and insanely complex Songs of Ice and Fire. But, Anne Bishop brings in a new twist and a fresh air into the business. Saetan, the High Lord of Hell (and other places) is a pretty loveable and only very human figure. You’ll always be glad to be back in the safety of Hell. Many of the characters are delightful even though they all seem static, either good or bad, with little character development.

Ah well, that’s where George is needed. If you need to kill the time until A Dance With Dragons finally comes out, Anne Bishop’s Black Jewels isn’t the worst choice.


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The Four Corners of the Sky

airplane Some while ago, I recommended Michael Malone‘s Handling Sin, a wonderfully hilarious novel about life’s most outer reaches of sanity. I have now read his latest offering, The Four Corners of the Sky

While not quite as hilarious, The Four Corners of the Sky is one of the nicest books I read in a long time. Amusing, engaging, with a good dose of good old romance. You won’t want to put it down until you’re done.

Highly recommended.

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I Used to Think…

crocus I used to think nurses were women,
I used to think police were men,
I used to think poets were boring,
Until I became one of them.

The BBC quoted this poem in their Mastercrafts program on stained glass, and the poem is now cited in a new stained glass featuring in a school in Peckham, south London.

I was intrigued and consulted with a popular Internet search engine, and thus discovered a poet called Benjamin Zephaniah. What a great guy! Well worded, non-boring, non-traditionalist, inventive, fresh. I also like Wot a Pair.

Read it for yourself, and read it aloud. It’s right here.


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The Staging Difficulties of Peer Gynt

statues In Educating Rita, the famous exam question is Suggest how you would resolve the staging difficulties inherent in a production of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. (script)

I notice they have now turned Audrey Niffenegger‘s brilliant novel The Time Traveler’s Wife into a movie. I can’t help wondering how they resolve the staging difficulties inherent in this book.

A good reason to watch the movie, and an even better reason to read the book again.


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How Not to Write a Guidebook

DSCF3674 Here’s an excellent example how not to write a guidebook: John Macadam’s recently released official National Trail Guide to the South West Cost Path from Padstow to Falmouth (amazon) – yes, the exact book that covers the stretch we walked recently.

Much rambling, some background information, and close to nothing in terms of guidance is provided. While most of the path is well marked and the basics are simple (keep the water to your left when walking east to west), some sections are tricky. Finding the way out of town, or finding the right path amid a network of paths crossing the dunes, for example, can be tricky. This is where one likes consulting a guidebook, but this one fails to come to the rescue.

Since the map for each walk is spread over multiple pages, it is often difficult to judge the current position relative to the walk. Little hints like “you’ve reached the half-way point,”  “better don’t take lunch just yet. There’s a steep climb ahead and a brilliant Cafe in the next bay” or similar information of that nature is the kind of stuff I look for in a guide book.

I recall at least one occasion (which I fail to find and quote now), he talks about a nature feature or historic aspect, and then proceeds discussing the next feature or historic aspect, ignoring the 6 mile distance between the two.

A good thing each of the guidebooks which cover the entire path between them is written by a different author. Or maybe they should have sought someone who knows how to write a guidebook and given the job to that person. Oh, never mind.

Yes, you should be walking the South West Cost Path. Its brilliant. No, you should not be buying this book. Its a waste of money. Take your common sense instead, and an OS map, and you’ll be fine. 


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