Sunday, February 28, 2010

Winter Games of the XXI Olympiad

Closing ceremonies of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics are tonight, and I will miss them when they are over. I like both winter and summer games, but must admit to a preference for the winter games. I love all of the crazy sports that you never see any other time except when the Olympics roll around, like ski jumping, luge, bobsled, and curling. I can't believe that I am saying this, but the gold medal match in women's curling between Canada and Sweden was riveting stuff. Really. No, really. Honest. Really. OK, never mind. But it was. Drama and strategy. Anyway, another nice thing about the Olympics is that this time around my daughters both enjoyed many of the events, and having the games on the TV was a good family activity that we were able to enjoy together.

The games got off to a solemn start, with the death of the Georgian luge athlete, and ended in disappointment, with the hated (by me) Sidney Crosby scoring the gold-medal-winning overtime goal against the US earlier today. There were many great moments in between, and lots of fun for my family.

There is one thing I have to admit having mixed feelings about, though. As an American, I find it a little unsettling the dramatic effect that money and high tech training have on these events. In these games, Americans did better in several of the events not usually strengths for our country, such as some of the cross country skiing events. We were able to accomplish this primarily through force of economic will. Hire the best coaches, build the best facilities... There is no sense howling at the moon about things that cannot be changed, but it does make me appreciate it even more when the underdog wins.

Next winter games - 2014 in Sochi, Russia. Where?

Friday, February 26, 2010

Hobby Times Ahead

For those unfortunate souls who may wander here from time to time looking for something wargaming related (as advertised, or false-advertised as the case may be), there should be some activity on the horizon. I just got an email that my Sri Lanka order is winging its way back to me, and with Cold Wars coming up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in mid-March, that should be plenty to get the fires rekindled.

Snow Update

Twenty-one consecutive days of snow covering the ground, which I think is more than I have ever seen in my lifetime. We were supposed to get another big storm last night, the fourth of the winter, and third this month. Expected snowfalls were anywhere in the 6 to 18 inch range, with damaging high winds. We did pretty well all things considered, getting maybe 6 inches of drifting snow, and the high winds but without any damage here at home. We should have this snow on the ground for at least several more days, more if the cold weather holds. With the possibility of a bit more in a few days. Ugh. I've had enough.

At least I'm glad I don't live up near my boss, in New York state just above the New Jersey state line: he got 2-3 FEET last night.

As Dave has pointed out over on his blog, cabin fever is definitely setting in, and I don't mind a cold weather hike, but have no interest in slogging through the snow or resulting melted muck. We may not have good hiking weather for a month...

Book Review - Love and Summer

Something about all this snow on the ground...I just haven't been in the mood for hobby stuff, but I am plowing through books like there's no tomorrow. I finished William Trevor's novel Love and Summer (2009) last night. It is another excellent effort from the Irish short story and novel master. It is set in rural Ireland sometime after the turn of the "previous half century", so the 1950s or 60's, and is the story of a doomed love. Like Yarbrough's book I just finished, this is very evocative of time and place, and gives you that sense of being elsewhere in addition to being a good, well-written story.

4 stars out of 5.

Books read: 10 [totalling 2129 pages]
New authors: still 6
Published this year: still 3
Classics: still 3

A good quote from Safe From the Neighbors:

"I couldn't understand why he'd done any of this. After all, it wasn't as if he'd caused his son's death. As for his wife, well, she'd figured out her sexual nature was different from what she'd thought. Sometimes, I reasoned, things just happen, and as long as you're not at fault, why blame yourself? At the age of twenty, I failed to grasp the difference between guilt, which can be atoned for, and grief, which can only be borne." (p.226)

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Book Review - Safe From the Neighbors

Steve Yarbrough is a favorite author of mine, and his new novel Safe From the Neighbors (2010) confirms it once again. It is a story of family, infidelity and race relations in Mississippi, spanning a couple of generations, and shows how the past continues to affect the future. As always, Yarbrough does an excellent job of portraying his setting, such that a lifelong northeasterner like me actually feels a bit of understanding for rural Mississippi, and what the race-charged 1960's might have been like in the deep South. An effortless read. My only complaint, if I were to have one, would be that there is a lot of thematic similarity here with his prior novel The End of California, which I also loved. I would hope to see something a little more different next time out. It would be disappointing to see a third straight book centered around a middle-aged man who cheats on his wife and tears apart his family.

4.5 stars out of 5.

Books read in 2010: 9 (totalling 1917 pages)
New authors: 6
Published in 2010: 3
Classics: 3

While I have been lazy about getting around to posting this, I am also nearly finished William Trevor's Love and Summer...

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Book Review - Fun with Problems by Robert Stone

Robert Stone is more known as a novelist, including the National Book Award winning Dog Soldiers, but he also writes stories. He is a new author for me, but knowing the name, I picked up his new story collection Fun With Problems when it came out earlier this month. I finished reading it last night, and while it was well-written and an effortless read, it certainly wasn't uplifting stuff. Stone's characters are seriously damaged people, and these are dark stories. Not as damaged as, say, Mary Gaitskill people, but then few are... I liked the collection, but you have to have a stomach for this sort of thing otherwise this would be a cheerless slog.

3.5 stars out of 5.

Books read in 2010: 8 [totalling 1,658 pages]
New authors: 6
Books from 2010: 2 (including this)
Classics: 3

I have started Steve Yarbrough's new novel Safe From the Neighbors and am loving it so far.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Enough Already

At around 3pm yesterday afternoon, I really began to dislike snow. These pictures don't seem to do justice to the amount of snow we got - the piles look smaller than they seem to in person.

By now I have found my car, most of my driveway, and the mailbox. Well, sort of on the mailbox.

Book Review - The Old Man and the Sea

After the disappointment that was The Sun Also Rises, I felt obliged to read another Hemingway novel, a later one, to see what I thought. To that end, I finished his 1952 novella The Old Man and the Sea. This was written 26 years after TSAR, won the Pulitzer Prize, and was apparently a significant factor (insofar as showing a later career resurgence) in his being awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1954. So what did I think?

This was a much better book. 4.5 stars out of 5. It had a point, and while there were only two characters in it, they were both way more fully developed in only 129 pages than anyone in TSAR was in 250. While the themes here may have been Hemingway revisiting well-travelled ground (man against nature, man against himself, with all the macho accoutrements for which he is famous), they were so well executed that I have no issue with the familiarness.

A great little book, which along with some of his excellent short stories, renew my faith in him as a writer.

Books read in 2010: 7 (totalling 1463 pages)
New authors: 5
Books from 2010: 1 (I should have been counting Coetzee's book here for first US release)
Classics read: 3

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Blizzard Update - 4:30pm

4:30pm and all's well. Snow continues to fall, and the wind has picked up a little bit, but nothing so far like the gusts they said we would get. Which isn't to say they won't come later. I went out onto the deck with a shovel for just a few minutes to see how heavy the snow was, and the answer is that it is wetter and therefore heavier than last weekend's. It will be hard shovelling.

With very low visibility, it is getting dark early. The pines in the back of our yard look beaten down but seem to be hanging in. I can't tell if any of these sagging branches have broken; I'm afraid that with all that weight some must have cracked. Time will tell.

More pictures will have to wait for the morning.

Blizzard Update - 2pm

It's now 2pm, and the winds are here. Not too bad yet, but definitely picking up. Snow continues to fall, and we have several more inches on the ground than we did this morning. The lights have flickered a number of times. This is what the deck looks like now.
It is beautiful.

The Blizzard of February 2010...Again

Here we go again. It is late morning and we are about 15 hours into the new blizzard. I would guess we have about 8-10 inches on the ground so far, and the worst is supposed to come during the day today before fading out tonight around midnight. We are supposed to get heavier snowfalls in the mid-afternoon, as well as winds gusting above 40 or even 50 mph. As can be seen in the picture below, this is a heavier snow than we got over the weekend, and all of our evergreens are sagging under the weight. This is a concern because once the wind kicks up, trees will come down, and with the trees will come power lines.

The table, chairs and grill cover were bare when this started (and that's a reflection of the kitchen light, not some strange sun...)

It is nice to be safe and warm at home rather than needing to be out in this. The kids are off from school, and I expect that I will end up working half a day and taking half a day off. More to follow.

Book Review - The Great Gatsby

or, This Emperor does Have Clothes!

I finished F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 masterpiece The Great Gatsby Monday night. All in all, it was an excellent book, and far superior in virtually every way to Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises. Maybe it's just simple old me, but there was actually a plot that went somewhere, characters that weren't two-dimensional cardboard cutouts and the style was much much better. In defense of Hemingway (not that I need to do that as I am sure I am very much in the minority here), but I have begun reading through some of his short stories after the significant disappointment of TSAR, and am enjoying them way more than I did the novel. At first, I would have attributed that to maturation on the author's part, but then I saw that the stories are ordered chronologically in the volume I have, and the first few I have read are the earliest, and therefore not far removed in time from TSAR. Oh well. Now I feel like I should read a later novel and see what I think of it.

As for Gatsby, it was very interesting to read this 20-odd years after the last time, from the vantage of adulthood rather than as a college or high school student. I am sure this time around that I felt more sad about the whole thing, and perhaps understood it better as well. I suppose that themes of unrealistic dreams, misplaced ambition, getting lost in the past and the like resonate better when you have a little more life under your belt. Not that this is to say that the characters are particularly likable; I found them to be more shallow this time around, and often pathetic, but this shallowness I believe to be intentional, and is not the same as undeveloped.

The writing itself often has a lyric beauty, and as pointed out by a friend, does have one of the greatest closing lines in literature. Some snippets:

As I went over to say good-by, I saw that the expression of bewilderment had come back into Gatsby's face, as though a faint doubt had occurred to him as to the quality of his present happiness. Almost five years! There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams - not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of the illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything. He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way. No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart. [page 87]

His heart beat faster and faster as Daisy's white face came up to his own. He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to the perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God. So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning fork that had been struck upon a star. Then he kissed her. At his lips' touch she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete. [p. 100]

Through all he said, even through his appalling sentimentality, I was reminded of something - an elusive rhythm, a fragment of lost words, that I had heard somewhere a long time ago. For a moment a phrase tried to take shape in my mouth and my lips parted like a dumb man's, as though there was more struggling upon them than a wisp of startled air. But they made no sound, and what I had almost remembered was uncommunicable forever. [p. 100]

The track curved and now it was going away from the sun, which, as it sank lower, seemed to spread itself in benediction over the vanishing city where she had drawn her breath. He stretched out his hand desperately as if to snatch only a wisp of air, to save a fragment of the spot that she had made lovely for him. But it was all going by too fast now for his blurred eyes and he knew that he had lost that part of it, the freshest and the best, forever. [p. 135]

And the ending passage:

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eludes us then, but that's no matter - tomorrow we will run faster, stretch our arms farther...And one fine morning-

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. [p. 159]

This is a masterpiece of American letters, and at a slim 159 pages, is a recommended read for anyone who has not yet done so.

5 stars out of 5.

Books read in 2010: 6 (totalling 1334 pages]
Books by new authors: 5 (yep, counting Fitzgerald for the same reason as Hemingway...]
Books published in 2010: still none
Classics read: 2

It's a bit unfair to throw classics into the mix, so I will still consider Coetzee's Summertime to be the best book I have read so far this year.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

E-Book Readers

While the chili simmers and the endless hours of Super Bowl lead-ins continue, I popped over to Excite to check the news, and saw a blurb about MacMillan reaching an agreement with on pricing for e-book versions of MacMillan titles (which includes a large number of "brand" imprints, such as Henry Holt, St Martins Press and Farrar, Straus and Giroux) . Amazon has typically charged $9.99 US for the e-version of any book, and a dispute with MacMillan over wanting to raise pricing on these (to around $15) had resulted in MacMillan e-books books, such as Hilary Mantel's Booker Prize winning Wolf Hall to be unavailable for purchase on Amazon, at least for a while.

This got me to thinking about e-book readers in general. Amazon has the Kindle, Sony has its own reader, and Barnes and Noble has the Nook, among others. Being well-known amongst my friends for the voracious reader that I am, I have been asked a bunch of times what e-book reader I have, or am planning to get. My response has always been - none, and I have no plans to get one.

I have nothing against them, but they hold absolutely no appeal to me. There is nothing like the feeling of holding a book in your hands, turning pages rather than pressing buttons, smelling the very pages themselves. In a feeling that may be showing my age (43 and proud of it), I get great satisfaction from finishing a book, wandering down to where my fiction books are stored in four full-sized bookcases, and pondering the row upon row of actual books when deciding what to read next. Looking at the spines, pulling books and looking at the covers, feeling the very heft of the books themselves; waiting for one of them to speak to me and say "read me next". I am not kidding; I actually do this between books. An e-reader might have all the convenience in the world, and be a tool of instant gratification for new book delivery, but it can never replace the actual book itself.

It is true that I could go to Amazon or the Barnes and Noble web site, pick a new book, purchase it, and have it on my e-reader in a matter of moments. But I really like the ritual of the purchase of a new book or books on eBay or Amazon and know that something will be coming in the mail. The anticipation. And when it arrives, holding it in my hands. Or going to a real live actual book store and browsing the shelves - imagine that! My most recent book purchases were a couple of Franklin library leather bound editions from eBay - Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg Ohio and Ivan Turgenev's Fathers and Sons, and Steve Yarbrough's new novel Safe From the Neighbors. The arrival of each was a nugget. And finding a beautiful hard back copy of John McPhee's The Founding Fish ( for $3!) at a used book store. Priceless.

And for the act of reading the book, at the end of a night's reading, I can't imagine replacing putting the book mark in the book and thinking "about halfway done", or "almost there", as opposed to noting at the bottom of the screen, "page 121 of 275". Not the same to my way of thinking.

So, progress marches on, and I come to resemble a dinosaur more and more, but I want books. Real books, not digital versions.

The Blizzard of February 2010

The last couple of days can best be described as snow, snow and more snow. It began Friday afternoon, snowed through the night and finally tapered off mid-afternoon Saturday. By the time it was done, we had somewhere around two feet. An exact amount would be very hard to gauge because of the wind. There were spots where the wind had scoured the snow away all the way to bare ground, and other places where the drifts were four feet high.

As the snow wound down, Grace couldn't wait to get outside, so we let her out on the deck, where the snow was drifted about four feet high against the back of the house.

Here I am explaining to Julia that she has to stop burying her sister when she gets up to the head. Julia doesn't seem convinced.

My car seems to be a good place to accumulate a snow drift.

Winter Wonderland.

Grace trailblazing the way to my car. Shoveling the snow was still fun at this point (about 5 minutes into the job). Note how the wind has left the driveway bare on the near side of the big drift.

Snow drifted to the windowsills along the front of the garage.

By Sunday morning I have found the front porch and removed the four foot high drift leaning against the front door.

Sunday afternoon. Everything peaceful, with deer tracks from overnight criss-crossing the lawn.

This storm was a lot of fun for the kids, and happening going into a weekend made it stress free, as work and school were not an issue. And thank goodness for neighbors with snow blowers. We were also fortunate never to have lost power, as we have heard reports of hundreds of thousands without power up and down the Atlantic seaboard. Here it was mainly just pretty.

And now for a low-key evening with the family, wherein I will make homemade chili, eat wings, and watch the Super Bowl with no particular rooting interest. Part of me wants the Saints to win because I love New Orleans as a city (or did before Katrina, I don't really know what it's like now...), but part of me wants the Saints to lose to keep the proof that there are some more inept football cities than Philadelphia - always a bridesmaid, never a bride...

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Painting Table - Medieval Cavalry

We are housebound in the midst of our second major blizzard of the year, with about 20 inches on the ground and still falling. If nothing else, this gives me the chance to catch up on odds and ends for the blog. Here are a couple of pictures of two finished stands of the generic medieval cavalry I have been slowly working on. After seeing the pictures I touched up a few minor blemishes, and they are now complete. The other two stands should be finished in a few days.

Singing the National Anthem

Julia's big week continued Wednesday, with a trip to the Seventy-Sixers game with her school chorus to sing the national anthem. For a seven o'clock game against the Chicago Bulls, parents needed to drop the kids off at the Wachovia Center at 4:45pm. When I dropped off Julia, Mr Lenderman asked if I wanted to stay with her and help chaperon the kids, so I said sure.
The first order of business was to get the kids lined up and down onto the floor for a quick run-through on how to get on and off the court quickly, and a sound check. Here Julia is waiting in the tunnel. It was very interesting to get to walk through parts of the arena that regular people don't get to see.

Sound check on court. It is around 5:30 by now, and we have been practicing lining up and moving.

The court. After the sound check, we had about 45 minutes to kill before having to regroup to get ready to sing. This is the view from our seats. At one point, we stopped to listen to a gospel choir singing in the atrium, and met two Sixers dancers who were working the crowd. We got pictures and autographs.

Getting ready in the tunnel. The national anthem was to be promptly at 7pm, so we gathered and lined up in the tunnel at around 6:50 to be ready when called on.

Big men. The chorus is on the court and ready to go at 6:55. The players were on the court getting loose, and some of them took a moment to come over to the kids and slap some hands, which was nice. Allen Iverson wasn't there for the game - excused for personal reasons because one of his kids was sick. His act has gotten so old...but that's another story.

Almost ready to sing. Sixers dancer Erica is smiling for the camera - she is one of the two we met earlier when we got pictures and autographs. The sacrifices we make for our children!

Show time.

After singing, we marched the kids back up to the concourse, where they were picked up by their parents. Julia and I went up to our seats and watched the first half of the game before heading home. We had a really enjoyable time, and I lucked out by getting to hang around with Julia, as I got to see all sorts of backstage areas that were interesting to me. We got home in time to see the end of the fourth quarter and the overtime; the Sixers ended up winning (which is a rarity - their record as of this morning is 17-31).

Red Fox - February 3, 2010

I took a vacation day this past Wednesday to do a few things (including the Sixers game in the next post), but I spent part of the morning in my home office working. We had gotten an inch or so of snow over night, and at around 9am I looked out the window and saw this beautiful red fox wandering around in my back yard. At one point, it came right up under my window.

We see this one occasionally, along with another one that is much blonder in color and much mangier looking.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Book Review - The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

I finished Ernest Hemingway's 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises last night. As I noted a couple of days ago, this is one of the classics that I wanted to go back and read; I know I read it in school, but that was a long time ago. When halfway through, I wrote that I was having an Emperor's New Clothes moment, and now having finished the book, I haven't really changed my mind. I have tried to talk myself into liking it more, and also asked myself whether I am being overly harsh, but I don't think so. Reading some of the gushing reviews on Amazon, I have to admit that I just don't get it. I don't intend to get into a debate with myself over its place as a literary landmark, what came before, imitators that came after and all that. As a book, standing alone by itself, read by me in 2010, it was just ok. Good but not great. Average.

Amparo and I talked about it a little bit at dinner tonight, and she kind of chuckled and said that Jake Barnes was having an inner struggle. If it is an inner struggle, it is buried so deep inside as to leave no visible clue as to what is actually going on or why. Nor, after 250 pages, did I care in the least.

3 stars out of 5. I considered 2.5, but I'll stick with 3. Call me generous...

Books read in 2010: 5 (totalling 1,175 pages)
Books by new authors: 4 (Canin, Harding, Updike, and I am claiming Hemingway a first as an adult)
Books published in 2010: still none
Classics read: 1

This makes me want to go back and read F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, which I read once in high school and once in college and liked both times.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Painting Table - February 2, 2010 - Medieval Cav

Progress continues, slowly, on the medieval cavalry. These guys have been on my table for a little while now, but most of my painting in recent days has been a stolen 20 minutes here and there (with a few side moments of painting some 25mm crusader foot, but that's a different story).

In addition to the rank and file cavalry, there are a couple of leader figures. The poorly lit yellow one will be on a stand by himself, and will likely end up being one of the main personalities in the solo blog campaign that I intend to begin soon.
The gent on the red horse below will go on a 3 figure command stand with the red and white musician and a standard bearer.

Currently Reading - Feb 2, 2010 - The Sun Also Rises

One of my reading goals for 2010 was to read a few classics, so to that end I am halfway through Hemingway's 1920's The Sun Also Rises. I am a little more than halfway through, and I wanted to post my preliminary impressions, which certainly may change as I finish the book.

To be honest, sacrilege though it may be, I am having a bit of an Emperor's New Clothes moment with this book. I will grant that it is evocative of a very different time and place; Paris and Spain in the expatriate days of the post-WW1 era. Beyond that...I don't know. From a plot standpoint, nothing much has happened, the characters are pretty much two-dimensional and unsympathetic, the dialogue is painful at times (beyond the vocabulary and idiom differences of a bygone time), and I don't see any real significant theme development pulling things together. I can't help thinking that if what I had read so far were presented to a creative writing teacher in its current state, the teacher might well ask/tell the student "where is this all going, and you have some style issues that probably need working on..."

Onward we go.