Books Can Be Deceiving

Today I was yet again asked by a stranger who saw my wrist cast if I had punched someone. And I finally managed to shave on the weekend too... I told them, No. Do I really look like the kind of person who would punch someone? Do I not look exactly like the kind of person who would fall uncoordinatedy off a push bike at low speed and shatter?

Anyway, today my book was The Truth by Terry Pratchett. During my lunchbreak I sat in the sun in the botanical gardens and it was pleasant.

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The woman with the fake tan stepped into my office, sat across from my desk and lit a cigarette.
At least, she would, sometime in the next 20 minutes. Smelling the future has advantages, but precision isn’t one of them.

Don Quixote is an Inspiration

Wouldn't it be better to stay quietly at home? Instead of looking for better bread than what’s made from wheat, and forgetting that many a man’s gone out shearing and come back shorn?

It's also very long so I haven't finished the second part after starting it in 2016.

Long live the memory of Amadis, and let him be imitated as well as is possible by Don Quixote de la Mancha, of whom it shall be said what was said of another: if he did not achieve great things, he died in the attempt.

What Did I Learn From 1300 years of European History This Week?

I've had a lot of free time this past week to consume nearly all of Dan Jones' summary of the middle ages: Powers and Thrones, and what I have learned is that every human in history has been born into a life of violence, suffering and a meaningless search for purpose before fading into the obscurity of statistics. And also about the Mongols which is cool I guess.

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The Left Hand of Darkness

I was passed a copy of Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness by one of my early writing mentors a few years ago. It is a classic of Science Fiction. I remember taking it home, opening the first page and immediately being disgusted by this fact. My copy lacked any introduction, and the story immediately lurched to a halt in my mind as a cavalcade of invented words spilled from the page. (I think it was the Gossiwors which triggered me). Why was this a classic of Science Fiction - so immediately dry and unwelcoming - and not some dumb thing that I had written, like what if time travel was powered by love maybe? And there were some good jokes?

Since that day both Le Guin and that mentor have died and then I found myself picking up the copy I still had on my bookshelf last weekend when I had a big salad that needed eating outside. This time I persisted, reading the first 100 densely packed pages (single-spaced, no margins) over the course of a week, and then the final 100 pages this weekend. Le Guin really was a Science Fiction master, and it had been my younger self who was disgusting with his haste to dismiss this. It was, in fact, everything I've been lamenting about modern day Science Fiction. It's an adventure, enriched by lore and gibberish - sure - but it stands on its own as an exciting, intriguing tale of an envoy on a mission to a foreign planet. It touches on some big themes like gender, sexuality, politics and religion. Themes which have only grown bigger since. But none of these themes are imposed or foisted upon the reader. They're buried in the complex world building and well-crafted dialogue and you digest them purely through the consumption of the story. I was very impressed.

Books of 2021

I digested a whole lot of books in 2021. Was this better for me than watching TV? Who knows. But to celebrate I’m going to review all the ones I gave 5 stars. In alphabetical order.

A Calling for Charlie Barnes by Joshua Ferris
Ferris is a literary author with the punchy prose of a thriller writer and the comedic timing of Larry David. There were moments in the first half of this novel where the characters and circumstances were so expertly written into sitcom style awkwardness I couldn’t help but marvel at the setup. Which is impressive, considering the topic of the novel is, at that stage, dying:

Cancer of the pancreas is the piano that falls from the sky. You have time to glance up, maybe. Then, splat! Like a bug on the cosmic grille.

It really was a novel of two parts, and while the second took a different turn that initially left me longing for the awkward, hyper-detailed comedy narrative of the first, in the end I can’t fault Ferris for breaking with typical conventions, and writing a story that really is about sons and fathers and how they exist in each other's minds.

Driving the Deep by Suzanne Palmer
The thing I most love about Palmer’s science-fiction stories is that they are, for the most part, pure adventure. While themes are touched on, for the most part its good versus evil, heroes versus villains, mind versus matter, across an amazing, imaginative array of locations and characters across the solar system.

What I liked most about Driving the Deep, in contrast to the other books in Fergus Ferguson’s chronicles, were the lonesome moments in the submarine under the ice of Enceladus. Even though here the action - finally - slows a little, there was something about these pieces that conveyed a sense of awe for the setting, the tickle of the overall puzzle, the anticipation. They were masterfully done.

Men at Arms by Terry Pratchett
I’ve been reading my way through the Discworld series over the past two years. Some are better than others, but I’m a fan of The Watch series’ most of all, in part because they are the earliest example I can recall of a detective story in a speculative fiction setting. The scene where Angua sees the colours of the smells as she hunts for clues has stuck with me since childhood, and was definitely one of my major influences for Baxter Adamson. Pratchett is also one of those authors that was given - or earned - permission to put jokes into his stories even if they serve no purpose to the plot. I’d like to have that distinction one day too.

Moonflower Murders by Anthony Horowitz
I am insanely jealous of Horowitz, who writes so well he makes me feel bad a little. How many other authors in the world churn out a whole, full length Agatha Christie style mystery that takes up 50,000 words inside their actual detective novel? Just for the sake of a plot. And then fills the inside book and the outside book with clever references and clues just to turn 600 pages into a playful, captivating mystery novel with a great payoff? He writes on hard mode and it only seems to make him better.

Napoleon the Great
A superbly assembled biography of Napoleon Bonaparte, at 976 pages it’s not short but like the Grande Armée it moves deceptively fast. Mostly chronological, it zooms in and out it as suits the story of a fascinating character, rich with minute details and trivialities as well as the main mechanics of all the relevant political, cultural and tactical moments. Widely sourced and relatively objective. It was the perfect distraction for two weeks in a sling after my shoulder operation.

The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton
Turton’s follow up to The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle was completely disconnected from his debut, but was another epic fantasy-thriller. Turton writes with such an effective, dark and chilling voice. He is a artist of intrigue and keeps pages turning. Another adventure that branches into not so common territory and totally nails it.

The Searcher by Tana French
I recall that French learned to write commercial crime novels after being brought up as a dancer, or something like that. Her Dublin Murder series highlighted this, with plots and twists that moved smoothly then swiftly, pirouetted, and always had a feel to them that no other Irish crime series could match - and there are a lot of those.

In The Searcher French writes a standalone mystery that isn’t particularly grand in scale, or fast moving, or even has much of a twist. Perhaps it was having read this book on the tail of a few other less “enriched” novels but the words on these pages were perfect in the way that they put you into the wet, Irish countryside. The players in the tale and their dialogue were real, nuanced and their lives felt completely fleshed out. As a study of character and scene it was excellent, and the story itself did the setting justice.

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My goal last year was to read 35 books and in total I read 14,647 pages across 40 books. Which, coincidentally, is just 40 pages a day. That doesn’t seem so bad. Still, I think this year I will set my goal to read one book a month. I don’t want to create a mental hook that makes me want to consume just for the sake of increasing a number. I already do that with steps, music, the share market and journal entries.

What I did on my Summer Holidays 2021 Edition

It's semi-often that I get eleven consecutive days without work. That's like an Easter, an Adelaide Cup long weekend, plus Anzac Day, and plain old regular Sunday all wrapped up.

Given this is my journal I thought it might be pertinent to repeat my previous summer break traditions of preserving an essence of those long summer days for posterity, unlike the other 354 days of the year which are abandoned in the mists of time, distance, and as usual the damaging effects of alcohol on the brain.

December 25th
Christmas morning started with a beach walk with Nash on the sands of Grange. Lunch was at Dad's with many extended family members. It was a nice time.

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December 26th
First thing on Boxing Day was a hike up Mount Lofty where for the first time ever I got a car park at Waterfall Gully. After we reached the summit we sat down for some choc-raspberry-oats and yoghurt. I saw black cockatoos and sulphur crested cockatoos.

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After that was a trip to the homemaker centre and big box hardware, and following a salad I set about knocking off half my break's todo list with the things I brought home. Alas, these were all the easy things like attaching sticky hooks to the shelf by the front door, and attaching a new hose head.

Finally, before the sun got too low, I rode to Alex's to meet up with Wilhem and throw a lot of tennis balls.

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December 27th
The ten person household limit kicked in, and I attended a small BBQ with Josh, Claire and Timmy.

In the evening I drank a beer and started reading From Russia With Love.

December 28th
After breakfast I rode my bike to St Clair for an Albanian coffee, some more reading time next to some birds, and then I bought heavily discounted custard and rode home.

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That evening I ate a sticky date pudding and played Borderlands 2 with Josh and Sam.

December 29th
It was very hot, and so we stayed inside in the dark and watched Matrix Resurrections and had a smoothie.

Later in the afternoon we drove to Aldinga for dinner and another walk on the beach. Nash tried to hunt and kill a partially submerged rock, and got bopped on her bottom by an unexpected wave. Much mirth was shared.

December 30th
Another stinking hot day where we tried to get a long walk in before breakfast, again along the Torrens.

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It was around this point that another item on my todo list - Upgrade to newer version of PHP and framework - began. I expected it to take me most of the day.

At some point I got sick of holiday software development and drank a beer while making pizzas.

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December 31st
Omicron hysteria was everywhere. We went on another Torrens walk, then after breakfast to Costco to buy bulk strawberries and salad.

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I did more Bradism upgrading.
In the evening I made Afghan chicken kebabs and then we rode to Semaphore, swam in the ocean, drank champagne in the dark and then rode home.

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January 1st
I fixed my flat tyre. The Bradism Upgrade efforts continued. Vanessa made me a mousse cake.

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January 2nd
We went walking on the beach in the morning. I forget which beach.

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Later in the afternoon I strapped a Bluetooth speaker to my handlebars, told Spotify to play radio based on Don't Stop Believin' and Boston's More than a Feeling. I rode to Glenelg for another ocean beer, and watching the sunset at the Unit with Gus and Timmy.

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January 3rd
Invigorated, I slow cooked a pork leg for eight hours and set about trying to finish as much of the second half of my todo list. I ate pulled pork for dinner. The Bradism upgrade continued...

It was a nice break.

What Did I Learn From Napoleon This Wood?

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The non-fiction book I finished this week was Wildwood by Roger Deakin. I remember purchasing this book through Audible back in May when I was desperately trying to use up credits so I could cancel my subscription. This was actually the same story behind me downloading Napoleon's biographic in the first place.

I'm a big fan of trees, whether it's the mulberry in my backyard or the towering redwoods of the Pacific Northwest, so the blurb of Wildwood grabbed my attention, indicating it would be full of interesting scientific and botanic non-fiction. I still remember reading Guns, Germs and Steel which taught me that broccoli, cauliflower, brussel sprouts and drumhead cabbage were all descendants of the original wild cabbage plant that grew only on the cliffs of the English coast and I thought that a whole audiobook of that kind of content would be captivating.

This was not the book I expected. It was the poetry quotes that were the first warning sign. Lyrical descriptions about wood, the feeling of wood, the jazz of driftwood, the fifth element. I like trees. Not as much as Roger Deakin likes trees. He really likes trees. There was a paragraph describing how being inside a fully wood building was so augmented by it's elemental nature that it made the taste of a single baked bean orgasmic. And a whole chapter about how satisfying it was to observe different types of moths in an English wood. I'm not judging this lifestyle. In fact, I was envious of how much time and resources Roger Deakin seemed to have available to travel and coppice and write and whittle.

The baked bean was just one example of the anecdotal rather than scientific nature of Wildwood and while it did contain a lot of interesting facts - such as the value of walnut tree burrs and the black market for the biggest of them, and how trees from cold climates make better flooring timber due to tighter grains - they were drowned out by the prep school reminiscing and the chapters about various wood-centric artists. Audiobooks are not the best medium for discussing that type of art.

And yet, perhaps it was Deakin (and the narrator's) passion for wood and woods that kept me listening, but over time the pattern of the book becomes clearer. Each chapter is an essay that starts from a seed - some aspect of wood and trees and how they shape someone's life - and often bloom into touching and interesting stories. The travels through the eastern bloc and visiting the walnut forests and the people living around them, and even tales of the Australian outback complete with handy tips on how to use crows to find your way to water (you just need to kill and salt a wallaby, then watch which direction they go after they eat the salty meat) were lovely, and sometimes fascinating although sometimes they did go on a bit. It really felt like Deakin was a man existing on a different plane; someone who understood trees and plants both scientifically as well as spiritually.

After I finished reading it I learned that he died of a brain tumour shortly after he finished writing Wildwood which was very sad because I'd just spent fourteen hours listening to his thoughts on wood, which ended on a short summary of the pollarding of an outdoor "room" of trees he'd been cultivating for twenty years, and clearly had hopes for maintaining and observing into the future. I don't know if it was done intentionally, but that last chapter was titled "Ash".

What did I learn from Roger Deakin this week? Trees are amazing, and they can bring people who are different together.

Professional Pedestrian

Breakfast may have declined since the 19th Century.

Breakfast may have declined since the 19th Century.

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