• Category Archives cultural ramblings
  • Books, movies, music…

  • Book Report

    Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

    I saw an extremely positive review in Vox of Susanna Clarke’s new novel (Piranesi) which made me want to read it, but I though I’d check out her original novel — for free, from the library — first.

    Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a honker of a book, weighing in at 782 pages, and tells the tale, set in an alternate-history version of early 1800’s England, of the two men who revived the practice of English magic. It’s written, perhaps somewhat ironically, in the style of the novels from that era — think Jane Austen or the Brontë sisters — which was fun and clever for the first half of the book, but that whole stilted “British landed gentry politeness” thing wears me down after a while (I sometimes joke that the one improvement Pride and Prejudice really needed was a guillotine), and it makes the story, which actually has a very active plot, seem like nothing ever happens.

    So the book rolled along just fine until the midpoint and then became a chore, but then it became interesting and readable again in the last hundred pages or so. I suspect that this is a result of my COVID anxiety: several longish books I read recently had the same effect on me — I liked them at first, they became tiresome as my attention span struggled, and then I enjoyed them again by the end. Like those other books, I am actually glad I read this one to the end.

    Since Piranesi is only about 200 pages, I’ll be adding it to my list.


  • This Side Of The Mountain

    Well, we did it — Anne and I rode the century ride we’ve been working towards. We started with our friend Julie and her brother Peter, who were riding to their family cabin in NY just past the Poconos, but for COVID and logistical reasons we only went about halfway — we left them at Delaware Water Gap and continued from there on our own route, returning along Cherry Valley Road (one of our recent favorites) and picking up Mountain Road, an old favorite, just north of Wind Gap. This was a beautiful section, but it meant that we had to go over Blue Mountain at Little Gap. Luckily, the ice cream place was open at the bottom of the downhill side…

    We got home with about 98 miles and had to circle around the neighborhood a few times, but we finished with 100.1 miles. It seems funny, I used to do century rides on a fairly regular basis back in the day, but Garmin Connect tells me that this was my longest recorded ride. I’ve been using Garmin Connect since 2009, so that means that this was my first century in more than a decade.

    Reading

    I just finished David Mitchell’s latest, Utopia Avenue. I really liked it, which was good because I’d been thinking lately that I no longer had the patience or attention span to read a book under the current stressful circumstances. (I finally finished The Mirror and the Light, and was sorry to leave it behind, but in the moment the process seemed such a chore.)

    The story follows a British 60’s-era band, blues/folk/psychedelic amalgamation Utopia Avenue through its formative days, with plenty of references to the London music scene and cameos from all sorts of British musicians, but there were also connections to some of Mitchell’s other books like Ghostwritten, Cloud Atlas, and the books in the Bone Clocks universe. Apart from a few (relatively drama-free) supernatural passages, and a jarring ending, it just passed by in a smooth and pleasant flow, like a sort of “Forrest Gump of British Rock.”

    I just picked up where I left off in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, since it apparently is a bit of a prequel to Utopia Avenue.

    Happy Labor Day!


  • Independence Socially Distant Quartet

    Posted on by Don

    Happy Fourth Of July! I can’t believe I’m saying this, because I have always loved Independence Day fireworks, but there have been so many fireworks in the neighborhood in the past month that I’m heartily sick of them.

    Anyway, we celebrated this morning by getting together for the first time with our new quartet: Jeff and Anne on violins, Digg on viola, and me with the cello. We met at Jeff’s farm, outdoors and socially distanced but under a barn roof to block sun (and rain — luckily there was none). I was the “new guy” in this bunch, and also by far the weakest player, so had a bit of trepidation but we all took to it right away and played fine. We spent a bit of time on a Mozart quartet, then worked on portions of one by Schubert, and before we knew it three hours had passed. We’ll probably do this again in a few weeks, an I can hardly wait. What a fun morning!

    Tomorrow is a road ride down to Milford.


  • A Movie Recommendation

    Posted on by Don

    It was a total fluke, I just happened to note it among several movie reviews on Vox, but The Vast of Night caught my eye the other day, and since it seemed like something we both would enjoy we watched it over the past two nights.

    We were both riveted, leaning in (along with the main characters) as some old woman tells her creepy tale, bedazzled by incredible camera work, and totally sucked in to what might have just been conventional sci-fi if the story were told less skillfully. But it was told skillfully, almost hypnotically, and the real story was more about the characters and atmosphere than any “and then this happened next” plot, even though that part was pretty good too.

    I suppose it’ll be in theaters eventually, but we saw it on Amazon Prime. See it there, or on the theater, or maybe at a drive-in for that full Fifties vibe, you’ll be glad you did.


  • Make Room For Cellos

    Posted on by Don

    I got in about an hour playing yesterday (not counting my Zoom lesson), and about another hour this morning, which are good things because cello sometimes to seems to sink to the bottom of the priority list, and the day moves along and suddenly it’s too late to play, or I’m too tired or other things are going on… So I have to make the time, preferably in the late morning when I’m fresher.

    I’ve been making some pretty good strides lately though, working with some books of exercises (fingering positions, bowing), which have helped with my two “ambition” pieces: Miska Hauser’s “Berceuse,” and “Bouree” (I and II) from Bach’s Cello Suite in C Major. “Berceuse” is coming along, and I’m starting to feel I’ve mastered the piece, or at least I’m getting there, but “Bouree” is still a struggle. Yo-Yo Ma is doing a live show of all of Bach’s cello suites tomorrow, so I’m hoping for a bit of inspiration.

    Meantime, I did a bit of cleanup on that new map — fixing some bugs and adding features, and changing the marker icons to more closely match the ones in my original QGIS project. I also did a bit of housekeeping here, adding a new menu item at the top for non-blog projects (like the map).


  • Finally Something To Chew On

    So we finished Devs (which, after all that buildup, ended on a disappointing note), and we just started Community, but I’m not really feeling it yet. I’m a reader and I don’t expect to be engrossed by any show for long, but even reading I’ve been struggling to find something I actually like right now. I picked up a few new sci-fi novels recently, but found most of them juvenile and annoying; re-reads of old favorites, in any genre, end up testing my patience…

    Luckily, my streak ended with Hilary Mantel’s new The Mirror and the Light, the final book in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy. I’m about a hundred pages in, less than a quarter of the way through the book, and I’m totally engrossed. The story picks up just after the execution of Ann Boleyn, where the last book ended, and though I know how it all ends — after all, everyone in it has been dead, and buried in the history books, for centuries — it’s amazing to watch Cromwell’s virtuoso performance, like someone juggling on a high wire, trying to keep Henry VIII’s kingdom from imploding.


  • They Can’t All Be Good

    So we saw The Hangover the other night — it stank. I was able to sit still from the beginning to the end, but that’s about all I can say good about it.

    We are now watching Devs, on Hulu I think. Much better, though the acting isn’t the best. (Actually, the acting and actors are fine, it’s the script that could use work.) This is the one to watch.


  • Every Night Is Movie Night

    Like probably everyone else in America, we’ve been doing a bit more TV lately. Luckily we got both Amazon Prime and Hulu for Christmas (and we still have Netflix). Some things we’ve watched this week:

    • Fleabag (season two)
    • Knives Out
    • Blazing Saddles
    • The Men Who Stare At Goats

    We’d seen Blazing Saddles and The Men Who Stare At Goats before, and we’d also seen season one of Fleabag, but Knives Out was new to us. Emmi recommended it, so I think we’ll probably be watching her other recommendation — The Hangover — pretty soon.

    Any other recommendations out there?


  • Fun With Alice And Bob

    I moved my SSH and PGP certificates to my new machine, and setting them up meant visiting a few cryptographic sites (to remember how to do it, and also just because). That means I spent a lot of time in that world, where “Alice” and “Bob” (and so on, alphabetically) are the main actors in usage scenarios: Alice sends a message to Bob, but maybe Clara intercepted it, how does Bob know the message is secure? Well, Alice encrypts her message and signs it with… Tedious, tedious, but now it’s done, and I can securely access my online accounts as well as send/receive encrypted email, which is sort of like being the only person with a phone — who can you call? — but still: I once thought it was cool, and now I have it back.

    Auld Acquaintance

    This past weekend was sort of the end of the holiday season for us: we saw friends we’d missed during the holidays. Friday night we did some bar-hopping with Doug & Lori, then Saturday was a “Festivus party” at Eric & Kris’s place (where we saw D&L again) lots of catching up and the usual merriment, it was a really nice night.

    Movie Night

    We saw “Uncut Gems” the other night. I don’t recommend it: the acting and the cinematography were all good, but the characters (especially the protagonist) were annoying and unsympathetic, and the plot, as Anne put it, was “a 2-hour panic attack.” Ugh.