Monday, October 24, 2011

A few book reviews

In classic fashion, here are a few more book reviews from a series of novels I have read since Freedom, in order.

Player One - Douglas Coupland: An enjoyable, fast-paced thriller set during a mini apocalypse after the world reaches its peak-oil limit, that takes place solely an airport cocktail bar. The four major characters use the experience to reflect on life and what their lives have meant, as well as their own failings, all while trying to stay alive during the period of intense civil unrest that the oil crises causes. Enjoyable and quite unique.

The Valley of Fear - Sir Arther Conan Doyle: I've always been a bit of a Sherlock Holmes fan, I'm not entirely sure why, but the chance to read a ripping yarn of his always goes down well, and this was no different.

The first of the story is classic Holmes, with the highly confusing case solved with wit and resilience, while leaving his intellectually inferior companions utterly in the dark. The story then settles you down for the second half, in which we hear the back story that caused the events in the then present-day.

I never like it when Holmes disappears for the entire second half of a book, as he's the best thing about the stories, but it's a good tale and told well-enough as the central protagonist of the story relives his time in the Wild West where he helps bring an evil gang of vicious men to justice by infiltrating their gang as one of their own.

A Film by Spencer Ludwig - David Flusfeder: An interesting and different story of a son and his very ill, fragile father going on an impromptu road trip from New York to Atlantic City. The relationship between the two characters was well imagined, and the change in their roles from child-adult to adult-octogenarian was well told and full of pathos. Some odd scenes in the book didn't quite gel for me - the father accidentally winning thousands of pounds at backgammon - but overall an enjoyable read.

How to be Good - Nick Hornby: I was after something light for a trip to Berlin that involved a 4:45am start, so this seemed perfect and indeed it was. It's a fun little tale, told with enough zip to keep you engaged with and some nice idea based around society, neighbourliness and consumerism that's only peppered lightly throughout. Hardly a classic or a must-read (what is?) but nonetheless a  fun, easy, light-hearted read.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

What you can achieve in a twenty-one hour day

OnWednesday I had the pleasure of enduring a twenty-one hour day for work – this involved rising at 4:45am and getting to bed at 1am. In this time I flew to Berlin, drank several beers, wrote a lot of words, and even managed to compare car insurance while sat at the airport.

The day started early, as mentioned, and involved a quick taxi ride to the airport, followed by a zippy trip over the Atlantic and into Berlin, in which time I read 120 page of How to be Good by Nick Hornby. It has been good so far.

Then we arrived and were taken on a whistle stop tour of Berlin, mostly by coincidence, as the coach taking us from the airport to the event happened to go by the Brandenburg Gate and several pieces of the Berlin Wall.

I then did plenty of work – including two videos, a review and a news story, phew – before eating some currywurst mit kartoffelen which was sehr tasty, although my fumbling attempts at GCSE conversational German were thwarted by instant replies in perfect English from the chefs serving the food. Curses.

From there it was back to the airport with the company of four other journalists for our 9pm EasyJet flight home. Except this being life, the plane was delayed by one hour and forty minutes, meaning we had some five hours to kill at Schönefeld airport – one of those small, shed-like airports which only servers the cheap airlines.

Still, we made the best of it and imbibed on German beers and some surprisingly good burger and chips from "Cindys", the airport's own knock-off McDonalds, where the nice manageress took pity and kept the kitchen open just long enough to feed us.

We chatted about many topics: our envy of the world presented to baby boomers, the best mobile phone and some of the recent films we'd seen, and I also managed to message several friends, read all the day's news and consider the best car-protection deals.

Sometimes I get these flashbacks to another point in my life and wonder how I would react if I was shown a snapshot of where I have ended up at certain points in the future.

I sat there, in the bright, harsh lighting of the airport departure lounge, sleep-deprived, drunk, and fed up with EasyJet, longing to be back in my new house in Wimbledon, and wondered what the 21-year-old me would have made of the scene, when he stepped off the train in Paddington in 2007 to start his London life.

Eventually, the plane left, we had the Obligatory Crying Baby the entire way, I fell asleep for ten minutes, awoke startled and confused by the light below me that I realised was London and soon enough we landed.

A 45 minute taxi journey home later and I was wearily climbing the stairs into my flat, and thinking that perhaps I don't need a car after all – I find all this traveling far too tiring.

Clapham Common 10km post-race thoughts

Long, long time readers will remember in 2009 I ran the Richmond10km in 42:20 minutes, setting a then personal best for my 10km abilities. Since then I’ve always wanted to try and go sub 40 minutes - you know, just because.

I entered the Clapham Common 10km, which was promised as a fast, flat race, perfect for breaking your PB by a friend, and after my entry in March was delayed due to a broken toe, I finally got back the fitness and stamina to  use my deferred entry for October’s race. 

So, last Sunday, while Australians and New Zealanders drunk themselves into oblivion in bars around the Clapham area, I and some 400 other fitter souls took to the start line at the Clapham bandstand. 

My attempts at sub 40 minutes were easily out done by the chap at the start line promising to go sub 34 minutes and within 100m he was storming head and eventually broke the course record in 32 minutes something or other - terrifyingly impressive. 

Me, though, I pounded on and kept up the pace I needed to hit to break my target, although by the fourth kilometre was conscious I was falling ever-so-slightly behind too, so kept having to ramp up my speed, before easing off, which isn’t the best way to do it really.

The course itself was not actually that conducive to a fast speed, either,as it was  annoyingly twisty and turny, and filled with stragglers from the 5km that set off before the 10k runners, which led to some annoying moments trying to pass on the corners. 

The fact it was two laps of the same course was also irritating as psychologically you know there’s nothing new to look forward to and you have the same dull course to do as you start the second lap.

I came through half way at almost dead on 21 minutes, one minute off the pace, and not looking forward to my second lap, especially with the heat of the day now bizarrely hot, considering it's October.

I tried in vain to make up that errant minute but it’s very hard to run the second half of a race faster than the first and although I managed to about break even and I only managed a disappointing, but respectable, 42:52 to finish 26th. Not even a PB.

I think I needed to have done more speed training around the roads of Wimbledon and it shows that perhaps my performance at the more hilly Richmond course really was at the height of my fitness, some two months post London marathon.

Still, it was fun to do and now I have the latent fitness for 10kms I can train harder specifically for the sub 40 minute barrier, rather than the distance of 10km first and then hope the speed is there afterwards.

While writing this blog my girlfriend asked me why I wanted to write a blog about running a 10km – the answer is that I don’t really know, I just find it interested to document the experience of the race. 

I know not many people read this blog really, but hopefully those that do, or stumble across this post, might find something to interest them – the internet is too big anyway, so one more blog entry hardly matters anyway does it?

Monday, October 10, 2011

Freedom? Yeah, right

As promised, I downloaded and read Freedom by Jonathan Franzen over the last two or three weeks and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. It's a strange story considering it runs for some 600 pages: in essence nothing more than a bunch of people's lives, how they mess one another up, and they all reach some sort of vague conclusion of happiness, or something like it, come the end. It would be hard to sell it to a commissioning editor if it wasn't Franzen and his name behind it, I suspect.

Yet, the characters are wonderfully defined, their backgrounds and histories real and well imagined, their interactions with one another laced with enough disappointment and anger to help you identify, care and empathise with them, or be repulsed, sickened or shocked.

There are some weighty themes going on too. Environmentalism, vapid consumerism, the endless waste of the west, the me-first culture of North America, all clearly targets of Franzen's own world view given voice in the character of Walter Berglund.

While probably not quite as good as The Corrections, which had more humour infused throughout while I found the character of Joey hard to believe in places - flying to Paraguay to buy scrap truck parts for a contractor with a $300,000 loan sitting over his head, aged 20? - Freedom is certainly worth most of the heavy praise it generated on release.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Why Fox should cancel The Simpsons

The Simpsons was one of, if not the, greatest TV shows of all time. It was smart, funny, moving, charming, enjoyable, intelligent yet simple and always managed to create stories that were a fantastic combination of the sublime and the ridiculous.

Yet, over time this quality has, perhaps not surprisingly, ebbed, and not flowed back.The writers have clearly run out of plot ideas of what to do with a bunch of character stuck in the same age groups and have used up almost every idea they could possible use anyway.

The news Fox may have to force the stars of the show, the actors voicing the characters, to take a paycut makes me think they should just can it altogether.

I always remember seeing the episode where Lisa convincesBart and Homer they have leprosy and so they get themselves sent to an island retreat to be cured and thought, for the first time, "well, that was a load of rubbish". 

 The film was the first time in a long time I felt I was watching The Simpsons again. It wasn't incredible, but it was funny, and it had the characters acting as their true selves, not as their caricatures, which is often how they are now portrayed.

Homer has gone from one of the greatest comic creations of all time to something of a boarish oaf who shouts and screams a lot without much redeeming qualities. He is hard to like in many episodes and does things far beyond his character's former, realistic, comedic boundaries.

If you ask me, Fox should just cancel the show and have done with it. It has nothing to prove to anyone and there's more than enough quality in the first eight to 10 seasons to ensure the show remains a classic that future generations will plough their way through on DVD or through online streaming that no-one will, for once, think any less of Fox for pulling the plug.