Archive for books

a journal of the [downplayed] plague and [endless] pestilence year

Posted in Books, Kids, Mountains, pictures, Running, Travel, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 13, 2022 by xi'an

Read another novel by Fred Vargas, the early This Night’s Foul Work which carries the usual Vargas’ themes more focussed on the psychology of the characters than on the police work, with no pretense at realism (from police work, to ignored regulations and procedures, to superhuman abilities of the improbable villein), and a rather simplistic (and surprising for a CNRS researcher) vision of regional idiosyncrasies. Again. (Maybe I am being thin-skinned because Normans are the targets this time.) Adamsberg, the main detective gets positively (or rather negatively) sleazy when spying on a romantic rival.

Read [in planes] The Traitor God sounded like an interesting plot when I picked it: a rogue mage, having left its order and city ten years ago, and coming to the rescue of old friends in trouble. However, the blob-like evil behind said trouble got particularly grotesque and absurd, till a ridiculous finale that was only the premise to a second volume. While sounding similar in concept, Paladin’s Grace proved much more enjoyable [in the same planes], if pure mindcandy (and hence hardly at level with a Hugo or Nebula Award). More a form of fantasy sleuthing than anything of a cosmologic scale (and no explanation as to why the god died), with a perfume-maker as the scientific police equivalent!  (But this is definitely not Süskind’s Parfum.) A bit heavy-handed on the romance part, though, with endless internal debates of both central characters. And also read The Maleficent Sevens, whose most redeeming quality is its title, as otherwise, I found little to enjoy there: the characters are not compelling, even in their maleficiency (facade grim only if this qualifies as grimdark fantasy), their motivation for (re)banding together is unconvincing, the magical abilities and actions hold no coherence, usual plot u-turns aplenty (like walking dead, krakens, subterranean demons), the naval battle is beyond stretching belief, contrary to the other (anti)heroes, the orcs are discriminated against in being the only ones to miss salvation in the final chapter, the dialogues are far from witty (far far away from Terry Pratchett if this qualifies as comic fantasy).

In contrast with my earlier light encounter with COVID, I attended a COVID funeral in Normandy a few weeks ago, which, besides the deep sadness of seeing a relative depart, made me question the general laisser-faire attitude about COVID, despite the dozens of thousands of daily cases (in France) and more than an hundred death. With hardly anyone wearing a mask in public transportation for instance. (In a cruel if not unexpected irony, some people attending the funeral later tested positive.)

Watched Hokusai in the plane to Santiago, and back, which I found a little bit stiff in its historical reconstruction and somewhat missing in getting the uniqueness and genius of Hkusai’s paintings. But interestingly bringing to light that paintings and sketches became somehow prohibited unless restricted to actors and courtesans, after the demise of the Tokugawa shogunate, during the Meiji Restoration. And un-enthusiastically completed the House of the Dragon, still lacking in scope. And in dragons.

a journal of the [experienced] plague and pestilence year

Posted in Books, Kids, Mountains, pictures, Running, Travel, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 4, 2022 by xi'an

Read The Cybernetic Tea Shop, by Meredith Katz, which is a short and rather clever (if YA) novel about the hazy boundary between humans and humanoids. Plus involving tea addicts! (Which is presumably why Amazon suggested it to me following my reading A Psalm for the Wide Built). And further read over a few sleepless nights the terrible Isandor series starting with City of Strife, by Claudie Arseneault, which had an interesting built of characters and fantasy universe, only to collapse into the usual cracks of super-evil villeins, a massive imbalance of power and a focus on the mundane (like foods and romantic attractions) when their society is under attack. The writing style is also heavily handed, to the point that I found myself skipping more and more paragraphs as the story unfolded. And will definitely not consider the incoming volume.

Went smoothly through my first (?) COVID positivity, which only caused a mild fever over one single day, amidst common cold symptom. Luckily did not pass it to anyone in my immediate vicinity, and resumed running if not swimming almost immediately (if not hard enough to train for the Argentan 1/2 marathon!). But sadly missed the 800th anniversary conference in Padova, as I was still testing positive the day before. I may have gotten infected in Britain or Belgium, despite my constant use of a mask (except in restaurants!).

Watched three more episodes of House of the Dragon, with great characters but a definitive lack of scope (when compared with Game of Thrones). The story remains at a highly local level of power fights and bickering, with existential threats inexistent. Still relatively enjoyable.

a journal of the [downgraded] plague and [mostly] pestilence year [from Belgium, w/o fries]

Posted in Books, Kids, Mountains, pictures, Running, Travel, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 2, 2022 by xi'an

While away for more than a week in Brussels, Belgium (for reasons I cannot reveal at this point!), I had various culinary experience ranging from terrible (in a ghastly Turkish pizza stand) to fabulous (at Ethiopian Toukoul), with a scandalously bland lamb vindaloo in the middle…

And found an historical (!) public swimming pool near my airbnb, namely the Bains de Saint-Josse, that dates from the 1930’s, with original changing cubicles where one can leave one’s clothes, great opening hours, reasonable water temperature, few swimmers, and cheap access. (The only negative point is the shallow end of the pool that makes turning awkward.) Which was fantastic as running options in the vicinity were limited and all involved 100% street trails.

Read Elder Race by Adrian Tchaikovski, Sharp Ends by Joe Abercrombie, and the first two volumes of The Scholomance by Naomi Novick. The Scholomance has a rather difficult start with a complex setting only described by an insider (although an outlier in the school pecking order), hence less inclined to details. Then the central character gets more attaching and then a bit too popular. The series is (again) rather too YA-ish for my taste, with the now common pattern of a coming of age in a wizard boarding school, just without any adult in control, which makes it a most bizarre school. However, I am rather shocked by how of little consequence deaths of students are, incl. for the central character. Sharp Ends is rather aptly named since this a collection of short stories, it is inevitably mixed in quality. The setting is the usual (and by now solidly established) First Law World, involving some of the most famous Abercrombie characters like Glotka and Logen Ninefingers. Some I felt like having already read in other books, like the final story, some were too light for grimdark, and some were going nowhere. But when looking at the original cover,  I seem to remember buying it at a farmers’ market in Northern California! And Elder Race is a short novel on a theme inspired from the early Ursula Le Guin novels, namely the impact of an “advanced” civilization on a less “developed” former colony. Where an anthropologist (an homage to Le Guin?) gets progressively involved in the plight of a population he cannot any longer treat in a clinical and remote way. The core crisis initiating this epiphany is however rather poorly constructed, as the “plague” impacting the colony merges too many tropes of the genre, while clashing with the overal rationalism of the novel. In addition, the depiction of the depression symptoms of the anthropologist is overdone.

Watched three episodes of House of the Dragon, none of RIngs of Power (so far). Lacking somewhat in scale (except those on the dragon), but with a brilliant actress playing Rhaenyra Targaryen in these episodes.

a journal of the [tolerated] plague and [mostly] pestilence year

Posted in Books, Kids, Mountains, pictures, Travel, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 31, 2022 by xi'an

Read Among Our Weapons by Ben Aaronovitch, the ninth installment in the Rivers of London urban fantasy series. Which I found superior to the earlier volumes. As the ninth novel in the series, it obviously shows some signs of fatigue in the relatively thin plot that painstakingly connects a series of no-spoilers with the Spanish Inquisition, in the convenient so convenient appearance of a new kind of magical being, and in the convoluted uncovering of this connection in the final pages. However, the witty remarks of Peter Grant still make me smile and his move to becoming a father is rather charming. Recommended for the comforting feeling of being reunited with a familiar.

Over the four week summer period “everyone” was away (on vacations), I managed to deal with long delayed projects, keep my Biometrika slate mostly clean, and work on an incoming grant. Plus, made an uninterrupted series of compotes from my neighbour’s fallen apples and rhubarb sticks from the local market, as I found a much faster way to bake them in the microwave oven, with no danger for kitchen pans! Observing in the process a phase transition phenomenon where the contents very suddenly change structure and the bowl overflows, despite my frequent stirring. And I found time to lazily bike with my wife on weekends to traffic-free Paris, incl. light dinners outside (except during heatwaves), like a nice and perfectly spicy Korean bulgogi near Denfert. Had some DIY experiences as well, incl. changing my 2000 Twingo car battery, which had run flat after at least three months of idleness (now that our children no longer drive it)! Which as usual induced several (dreaded) trips to the DIY store…

Watched Extraordinary Attorney Woo, which is a Korean TV series following an autistic attorney at law, which has some original features but leaves me uneasy about its rather charicaturesque depiction of autism. At least, addressing discrimination and sexism (albeit with mixed results, as in the stereotyped representation of both female heads of the law firms). And The Soul, a Taiwanese horror + sci-fi + noir movie whose foggy atmosphere was rather appealing but alas following a terrible scenario.

a journal of the plaid [shirt] year [#2]

Posted in Books, Kids, Mountains, pictures, Running, Travel, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 3, 2022 by xi'an

Read Kawabata’s Sound of the Mountain, which I also found in a Montréal bookstore. At first, I thought it was connected to the masterpiece House of Sleeping Beauties,  which I read eons ago, as dreams are also central to that (mostly) domestic and familial story, but this was quite another, more personal, and poignant reflection on aging and the irreversibility of time. As well as an unsuspected window into immediate post-war Japan. (With the realisation that abortion was completely acceptable then.) Also spotted Greg Bear’s Darwin’s Children in my Canadian cabin, which I started and finished later with a Kindle version. As I was unaware of a sequel to the fabulous Darwin’s Radio. Overall, I was almost as enthusiastic about it as I was with the first book, but obviously suffering from an academic bias as the author engages into speculative population genetics, which may prove too much for non-academics… (Imho, the end is wasted, though.) And (binge) read January Fifteenth on the flight back (leaving too early to sleep!), which is a short novel whose only speculative aspect is the move (by the US Government) to a universal basic income (UBI) for all individuals, and the consequences on several women’s live. This was indeed a very quick read, presumably due to the high proportion of dialogues, with (variably) interesting characters that avoid a direct take on the concept, but somewhat charicaturesque nonetheless. The implementation of the scheme is rather vaguely described: January 15 is the calendar day people pick their yearly UBI and they have to do it in person to avoid been coerced or scammed into transferring it to someone else. As someone rather interested in this societal propsal, this book did not modify my views on the concept or on its practical aspects, but shed light on some potential consequences of (one version of) it.

Had a great time in a Lac-Saint-Jean cabin, with direct access to the lake. Albeit requiring the emergency purchase of a neoprene swimming suit, as the temperature of the lake was rather low for extended swimming without it. But otherwise, having a swell time every morning, often running and swimming and biking. Before hiking. (The last week, farther south, next to a much smaller lake I could easily cross, did not require the suit!) Also appreciated very much the almost flat véliroute des Bleuets (blueberries) that run all around the lake (even though some sections are alas shared with cars). Has for instance an uninterrupted 15K connection to the nearest (genuine) bakery+cheese-mongery! Made an attempt at kouign amann, but using the wrong type of both flour and cassonade, plus an unknown oven and the poor substitute of baking soda for yeast predictably failed the experiment, even though the outcome was eatable (and eaten within a few days).

As usual (!), did not spot much wildlife, beyond groundhogs, pikas, squirrels, beavers and muskrats in our rental’s lake, moose tracks here and there, and a few Virginia deer in the Mauricie National Park. (Which made me realise that national and regional [Québec] parks co-existed in the area.) Had a few traditional hikes, reconnecting with Deet to keep mosquitoes and black flies at bay.

Watched nothing at all! In part due to my wife often borrowing my laptop for its Netflix connection, in part due to my early sleep caused by earlier rise, as light comes before 5am in this part of Québec we were staying, which made an ideal opportunity for very early run, swim, and… Biometrika editing!

%d bloggers like this: