Wednesday, 30 January 2008


John Updike

The outline is a re-telling of the classic story of Tristan and Isolde. This is only a frame for a much larger story to be hung from, though. Overall, I was reminded of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude - perhaps because I'm simple and both are set in the wilds of South American jungle. But to be slightly fairer on me, both are apparently non-genre modern classics, but they both contain large elements of the fantastical. In other words, these supposedly very serious, meaningful books turn into fantasy for at least part of their story. Quite amusing: fantasy is typically regared as barely writing at all.

This drift is done unexpectedly, with a sudden jolt. This is something I love. A novel is a depiction of another reality, why does that world have to work exactly the same as our world? Why not answer some of those questions that can't normally be answered?

This is a story of fidelity, change and growth. The story follows the two young lovers as they try to stay together against the weight of society. It sounds very corny, but there is enough to this story such that the apparently corny plot line becomes insignificant; or, it's twisted just enough to become significant again.

My big question while reading, was whether Updike had actually travelled into the back country of Brazil. Beyond the story, fantasy and societal commentary, this is one of the rare books where the author has tried to get his head into another culture. Of course, knowing nothing about the Brazilian back country myself, I can't judge his success. Which makes an interesting point: if the readers can't judge whether this is a real depiction of Brazilian society, does it actually matter if it's accurate or not? Doesn't the society drawn just become part of the fantasy world of the novel?

This book also has 'grand experiment' written in its very pages. The running and movement through the land of Brazil is also echoed as movement through time. Slowly melting your sense of when this book is set. Dates are not mentioned at all until near the end. Your sense of the book's setting slowly comes into focus, emerging from a cloud. There is also a great loop: starting with a world and a story we know and can understand, as the characters run into the wilds of the Amazon rainforest we move deeper into that fog. Until we're so far in you have no idea what you're seeing, what's real, what's imagined. And then the return begins, until you're back with characters, settings and plots that are familiar. Ultimately leaving a sense that nothing untoward has happened; nowhere strange was visited. A genuinely disconcerting sense.

Sunday, 27 January 2008

Darwin, December 2007

Just a random set of photos from Darwin, while there over Christmas 2007

First, three photos looking off the Dripstone cliffs at Casurina beach. This was not a particularly low tide.




I was impressed by the growth in Darwin city; it feels like a very vibrant centre.


Darwin Wharf for a casual dinner of fish and chips with a great sunset.



Saturday, 26 January 2008

The Maltese Falcon

The Maltese Falcon
Dashiell Hammett

I don't normally read detective/mystery novels, but I was given a recommendation to try reading outside of what I normally read. Figuring that if I am to grab a book from another genre, I might as well do that genre justice, I decided to read this.

Ultimately though, I just don't have much to say and I probably won't be going out of my way to read any more detective novels. That's not to say it's not a good book, but the characterisation was just bizarre. Sam Spade is the original hard-as-nails private eye - I'm sure he's intended as a character to be admired; as something or someone to aspire to. But that's just not something I could do. I'm sure at some point in the past Spade's attitude to women was admirable, but I could certainly never do that. Spade's interaction with the police was fantastic though - a real sense of reality. Hammett was clearly writing these scenes straight from memory.

The story and mystery was enjoyable, with plenty of twists, just as you'd expect. Personally though, I just don't get deeply involved in figuring out a mystery. Figuring out the people: for some reason that's much more interesting; much more of a mystery.

This is the original private eye novel: everything that came after is just a refinement of the mould set in this book. As I was reading, when I needed to visualise scenes, I was pulling images from Who Framed Roger Rabbit? of all places - not establishing the exact tough tone required.

Really what this came down to, is this kind of book is now just a cliché and a parody. Even the twists are predictable from this point of view: just expect the worse and you're about on track. And when you're reading a cliché you can't help but do that.

'If this is the kind of thing you like, you'll like this kind of thing,' otherwise... Well, you can read it for the historical value... No matter what you will almost certainly enjoy this story; just try to forget the clichés and parodies. Wind yourself back to the 1930's, if you can, that might help.

Friday, 25 January 2008

Our Old Home

Our family moved to Darwin in mid-1986, after migrating from Wellington, NZ to Katherine in May of that year. Sometime between my birthday (5th December) and Christmas we moved into 4 Cunjevoi Cres, Nightcliff. I can't remember exactly when; I was young. From then on, my Dad worked on improving the house and garden. Over the next fourteen years the garden evolved into (in my opinion) one of the better examples of a tropical garden you're likely to find in Darwin. A couple of points:

  • There was a noticeable difference in temperature when you walked through the front gate: it was at least a couple of degrees cooler. And in the middle of the Darwin wet season, you appreciated that.
  • No grass. The green cancer is woefully unsuitable for all Australian climates, but tropical gardens with large expanses of lawn are virtually uninhabitable.
  • We had a continuous set of native residents: skinks, possums, blue-tongue lizards, green-tree snakes, honey-eaters nesting off the balcony: we had it all.

I haven't been back to Darwin since sometime in 2003. My Dad finally finished and sold the house at the end of 2004. I was the first of our family back in the city since then, so I made sure to visit the old house. The owners weren't home, but one of their tenants were. She opened the gate; I circled the house and took some photos.

Overall, Darwin was something of an experience after so many years. I always knew I didn't quite fit in, but you need to live somewhere else before you can really understand why. Fun fact: the local Darwin dialect has no equivalent word for Bogan. Make of that what you will; I know what I make of it.

From the street.
A pergoda, with a formal fish pond.
Old fig with a home-made aviary: they're using it now to care for injured possums.
Looking across the pool.
A variegated pandanus.
The natural pond.
The natural pond: closer.
Lilies and water plants run wild.
Front garden with Alexandria and Betel nut palms.

Thursday, 24 January 2008

Snow Crash

Snow Crash
Neal Stephenson

My first cyber-punk novel; I haven't even read any William Gibson. This was recommended to me over his other novels, including Cryptnomicon, which I already had. It's a very good sci-fi novel: unlike much other sci-fi Snow Crash is both written recently and set in the quite near future. This book also has another advantage: Neal Stephenson was a professional programmer and has chosen to write a book about programming.

As another professional programmer however, I do have to object somewhat to the depiction of the profession. Stephenson elevates the cowboy approach to mythical heights. Not something I agree with. But, it's a bit of a ridiculous complaint. He gets the terminology right (even the oft-misused word 'hacker'); he does understand actual software engineering techniques; and he hints at software development being a creative process.

Ultimately, programming is not a spectator activity: there's a lot of quiet thought, some esoteric arguments and a small amount of typing. I can accept jazzing up programming for the sake of the story. Given the reality.

The future presented is very plausible. Including the interaction between programmers, corporations and the vast majority of users. It could very easily be regarded as overly dystopian. The alternative to the future in this story is that improved technology creates more engagement amongst the non-technological priesthood part of the population. There is precedent for taking that view. The novel 1984 is unfortunately implausible as many technologies since have made the techniques described impractical or impossible: the photocopier, for one.

Personally, I have seen blogs improving the literacy level of those writing them. But, ultimately, the Stephenson's dystopian world is all too imaginable. I still have fairly negative attitudes towards the future of technology. It will not save the world.

Aside from the depiction of the future, this book has a fantastic idea at its centre. It's an unusual idea, and very well-executed. There are some distinct echoes of Philip K. Dick's A Scanner Darkly, but only towards the periphery.

The plot is fairly hackneyed and predictable. The whole 'murdered genius leaving behind a trail of clues to pieced together in time to save the world' thing is pretty common in sci-fi/fantasy stories.?But in the end this is not a disappointing novel: a great idea and well-executed, that rarest of combinations.

Monday, 21 January 2008

Two Tales from the Same Day

The Afternoon Bus Trip Home

It's a rainy day, there's three of us huddling under the balcony of the Town Hall hotel. The rain drizzles down slowly; the ashphalt and brick building glisten damply. We're chatting about garbage collection in Scheme as the bus pulls up and everyone piles on. The three of us take seats at the back and A, R and I keep talking.

A little further down the road (maybe the West End hotel stop, but I wasn't really paying attention) a guy gets on and takes the seat in front of me. The bus continues; droning out of Balmain, onto the Anzac bridge. The sun appears out of the clouds briefly - playing across the bridge pylons and the last vestiges of the working harbour beneath. Our discussion is getting animated - what can I say? Scheme and garbage collection matter to us.

And then suddenly, the guy sitting in front of us interrupts. 'Hey!' You'll have to imagine the nasal, pinched drone for yourself - 'Does any of youse guys has a mobile phone you could lends me?' 'Sorry mate; no.' We respond.

And that was enough. 'Where's the fucking Australian spirit? Ya bunch of fucking wankers. You're all just a bunch of fucking c*&ts. Fuck youse.'

We tried to go back to our conversation, but he wasn't having that.

'Nah! I don't want to fucking hear it. Shut the fuck up, ya poofs.'

Then his phone rang. Yes, he had his own phone. The guy on the other end was told (loudly) about how this poor traveller was surrounded by a bunch of un-Australian c*&ts.

The bus continued along the Western Distributor, over Darling Harbour and into the city. At the next stop, on Sussex St, A, R and I all decide to get off.

We're followed off the bus by more descriptions of our patriotism, anatomy and sexuality. R blames my long hair for the last. Having a look back at the bus we can see him screaming at us and pounding the window. Wow.

The Morning Bus Trip to Work

I run into DC waiting for the bus. She's reading a book: 'Scaling Software Agility.' It's about RUP and agile for big and growing teams. We start talking about it, and continue talking after we're on the bus.

As our bus crosses the Anzac bridge, heading west, there's a lull in our conversation. And into the pause, the old lady in the seat in front of us turns around. 'Would you look at that? Evidence for global warming if ever I saw it.' She gestures towards what appears to be a cloud bank over North Sydney. 'All that smog and all those new cars waiting to add more.'

Below the Anzac bridge is the White Bay car wharves - just about every new car in Australia has passed through there. They sit, gleaming, sparkling cleanly. Waiting to be shipped off around the country to their excitedly waiting owners.

At first DC and I are a little taken aback - as you usually are when a random person on the bus starts talking to you.

'Well, actually, I think that's fog; not smog.' From DC, after a pause.

'Yeah, we've had quite a bit of rain recently, that would be fog, I think.' Me, this time.

'Oh? Are you a climatologist?' Now that surprised me. Such a sweet old lady, so confrontational! I had tried to be polite. There must have been some shock or surprise in my face though, because she quickly continued.

'I'm sorry for interrupting, but I've just been waiting for a chance. Listening in on your conversation has just made my year in Sydney! It's sounded like such an intelligent conversation, especially compared to the usual inanity I overhear on public transport. You know, the usual he said then I said and she said. Just so inane! Anyway, I thought you may have been scientists. Are you climatologists?'

'Close,' DC replies, 'we're both engineers.'

And then, alluding to her experience in public health policy, she regalled us with her very high opinion of engineers. All the way through the narrow street up the side of the Balmain peninsula and to our stop, opposite the Town Hall hotel.

Sunday, 13 January 2008

The Songlines

The Songlines
Bruce Chatwin

On the surface this may seem to be a travel novel, that is what Chatwin's most famous for after all. You could read this as a book about a trip through the red centre of Australia. But this is really a book about travelling: it seems to be Chatwin's final attempt to get at the wanderlust in his heart.

What surprised me though was how well I know and remember this part of Australia. His description of the Katherine Hotel-Motel; Katherine's main street: Main St; the two kinds of roadside pub he stops at on his way south down the Stuart Highway; and above all: the landscape, the desert and the colour. With every one of these I could feel the heat, the dust, see the flys. It was all still there.

Ultimately, Chatwin is trying to get an understanding of the Aboriginal Songlines: the tracks laid down by the ancestors during the dreaming. And for this alone, every Australian has to read the book. I will not try to summarise or explain the Songlines here. I am simply not qualified.

When I was growing up in New Zealand, part of our school education was Maori culture: we learnt basic Maori language, Maori cultural traditions and Maori society. Before our family moved to Australia, our parents as conscientious school teachers tried to make sure we were up to date with the Australian curriculum. English, maths, science were all easy; basically the same things were taught. But we didn't know much about Australian history. We were given books to read, including an Aboriginal dreaming story, told for children, each.

When I arrived at school in Katherine, a town with a significant Aboriginal population, I discovered that I knew more about Aboriginal culture, stories and history than any other white kid in my class. As a seven year-old, I was stunned. To this day most Australians can't name the traditional owners of the land they live on. And if you did want to find out, it's hard: Australian society is not set up to share knowledge of our Aboriginal heritage.

This is a ringing indictment of Australia. Do your bit to counter, read this book. We have this shared history of stories that haven't been told and you haven't heard. Try them, you'll be surprised by how enjoyable they are.

Chatwin's book does wander a little towards the end. I wonder if any of this is to do with some knowledge that this was his last travel book? Did he know and wanted to say his final word on travel? Oh, and by the way: this is it for me and Australian writers. I've long been sick of stories about white farmers, and if an English guy can actually say something about Aboriginal culture then I have no further time for Australian writers. Hear that, Australian literary establishment? Screw you guys, we're through.

Friday, 11 January 2008

Falling Pots

As you walk around an inner city suburb with high apartment buildings, you may see many balconies with pot plants sitting on the ledges. You may also wander if those pots ever fall onto the street below.

The answer is yes, yes they do.

This is another photo from the large ex-Mark Foy building across the road. This ceramic pot fell from a balcony on the fifth floor, through some trees while people were on their way to work.

I was too slow with the camera to get a shot of the two terrified guys who were walking past when the pot landed. The street was full of fragments of pot for a couple of days.

Wednesday, 9 January 2008

Y: The Last Man - Unmanned

Y: The Last Man - Unmanned
Brian K. Vaughan, Pia Guerra, José Marzán, Jr.

There was a long hesitation before I was willing to buy this comic, the premise has immature male fantasy written all over: everything that's bad about comics really. But, I was looking for something else, and so far I'm happy with my experimentation. This first volume has a very sci-fi feel. In particular, the conflict that establishes the characters and series is very much a sci-fi idea. In fact, it now appears that it's a pretty direct derivation of Frank Herbert's The White Plague, which D is currently reading.

In brief, every male mammal suddenly and catastrophically dies. All except for one guy. You can probably pick that up just from the title, though. Unlike the other comics I've been reading, this one is written and set quite recently: 2002. It does give it a more immediate, less abstract feeling.

I do have a criticism however. Yes, the sudden death of 50% (any 50%) of the population would be pretty devastating, but I doubt the social collapse would be quite as bad as depicted. Maybe I'm just disloyal to my gender, and there is the post-Katrina, New Orleans melt-down to consider.

Anyway, I'm starting to understand why heavy comic book readers make such a big deal about publishers. Just about every comic that has looked interesting enough to buy has been published by Vertigo, an imprint of D.C. Comics. I do now have one comic published by Marvel, I'll be sure to let you know how that goes when I read it.

Oh, and the obvious, juvenile male fantasy has not played out. Fortunately. So I will be continuing with the series. At least for now.

Tuesday, 8 January 2008


Across the road from our building is another old warehouse converted into apartments: one of the Mark Foys buildings. This is not the original store, that's now the Downing Centre. This is the brownstone Mark Foy warehouse.

It's a very large building, with a lot of apartments in it. Lots of apartments means lots of 'stuff' going on. A recent trick has been triggering the fire alarm. It's loud, the whole building needs to be evacuated and it requires two fire engines each time.

Two fire engines, just in case...
Some evacuees, and a lot of people just trying to go home.

Monday, 7 January 2008

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Vols. I & II

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Vols. I & II Alan Moore

I read both of these a while ago, so am combining together two reviews into one blog post.

Volume I

I'm still enjoying comics so I'm reading more and branching out; unforunately this isn't branching our very far. D picked this one out as she enjoyed the movie.

The comic is pretty good - quite different in visual style to The Sandman, with a more straightforward mystery story line. But, good though it was, I didn't like it as much as the other comics I've been reading. The most interesting aspect is that this is actually a re-telling of Sherlock Holmes, from the perspective of a group investigating a minor storyline. This was entirely missing from my understanding of the movie, so either I'm unusually dense, or... I can see why Alan Moore objected so much to the movie.

We have volume two of the series, so I will be going on to read that. And also other comics. Definitely The Sandman, but I'm also going to try branching out a bit more: to works written by authors I haven't already read nor the originals of fairly mainstream movies.

Volume II

This one was read straight after the first volume, which makes comparison easier: unfortunately it just wasn't as good. Volume II is a re-telling of H.G. Wells The War of the Worlds. This re-telling is much more straightforward: it's obvious within the first few pages.

This comic is also much darker than any of the other comics that I've read. V for Vendetta was probably darker in tone, but this is much darker in imagery. There is actually some moderately gruesome stuff in this one. You have been warned. Frank Miller's work (Sin City, The 300) has been been recommended to me: so I'm guessing this is pretty good preparation.

Volume III wasn't available when I went looking, so I'll be trying some other stuff next. And to be honest, I'm no longer in any great hurry to keep reading The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

Sunday, 6 January 2008

The Observatory

Back in October last year, we spent a weekend at Sydney's Observatory Hotel for our anniversary. A very nice weekend; their restaurant (Galileo) is highly recommended.

Here are just some random photos from spending time wandering around Miller's Point, Walsh Bay and looking off the balcony of our room.


Funny story: the weekend was kind of a present from me, so I was in charge of the organisation. I think you can see where this is going. We were going to make a whole weekend of it, so we also bought tickets to the play Don's Party at the Sydney Opera House. Come the Friday afternoon as we were about to leave for the hotel and then the play, I went to check the booking for the hotel: and found the booking was for a Wednesday and a Thursday about two weeks later. Oh.

I called the Observatory's reservations centre, and they managed to change the booking to that Friday and Saturday night, in the same kind of room. Fortunately for me. Weekend saved.

Saturday, 5 January 2008

The Princess Bride

The Princess Bride
S. Morgenstern
'The Good Parts' Edition, Abridged by William Goldman

We all know the movie of course. And if you don't, go straight out and see it right now. This is the version of the clasice tale that became popular enough to get that movie made.

It's most surprising to see how close to the abridgement the movie managed to stay. I guess being abridged by the same guy as who wrote the screenplay to 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid' would help.

And that's something I didn't know before reading this book. Learning the background is the best reason for reading this - did you know: the legend about Goldman reading this to his daughters is not true? He didn't have any daughters, just a son. Did you know: Morgenstern actually wrote 'The Princess Bride' as a satire of royalty? By filling the backstory of the the writing and the history of the original you do begin to understand some of the controversy over the abridgement and why Stephen King got involved in the abridgement of the sequel.

I was particularly inspired to read this by seeing the movie 'Stardust' - also a fairly corny fantasy story, also adapted from a novel. It has a very similar feel: a really traditional storyline, but then told in this slightly mocking, ironic style. It even includes some unusual and unexpected characters.

Neil Gaiman (the author of 'Stardust') was inspired by something, I suspect. Which also brings me to: If you like fantasy, but are maybe a little burned out on the genre, or if you just plain like fantasy, then do yourself a favour and read something by Neil Gaiman.

And of course 'The Princess Bride.' All will then become clear...

Friday, 4 January 2008

New Years Eve 2007

We moved to Sydney at the beginning of 2007. This city is quite renowned for a reasonably good fireworks show on a pretty nice harbour for New Year's Eve, and as everyone agreed that you need to spend your first Sydney New Year's down on the harbour, that's where we went.

We got to Milson's Point at about 9pm, but still managed to get a pretty good spot right on the water with views of the bridge, the Opera House and the city.

IMG_3044.JPG IMG_3039.JPG IMG_3051.JPG IMG_3042.JPG IMG_3060.JPG

Getting back onto the train to get home was... interesting. Maybe a rave at Bondi, next time?