Saturday, January 17, 2015

Review of David Mitchell's "The Bone Clocks"

David Mitchell is a smart man. He’s written six novels, and like any good postmodernist, all of them have both small and large connections with each other. (More astute readers than I have found them all – check out this Good Reads review for a summary.) Decrypting these puzzling connections both within and between his books, and pondering what they mean, is a lot of the fun of reading Mitchell. And unlike, say, the puzzles of Christopher Nolan’s films, where amazing characterization –being caught in another’s thoughts and voice IS the meaning – Mitchell strives for more. His last book, The Bone Clocks, just leaves me wondering just what exactly that more is.

The hyper connectedness of his novels hints at some kind of vague spirituality, of a (benevolent?) energy making order out of the universe’s chaos. It’s what seemed to be behind the various reincarnations of the characters in Cloud Atlas, for example. But in TBC the connections are revealed to not be the result of a mysteriously divine process, or even the whims of an obscure deity; rather it’s a shadow society of supernatural beings. And, naturally, there’s a good group and an evil group of these characters. Make no doubt about it, by the 3rd quarter of the book, Mitchell has fully embraced fantasy. At first I thought Mitchell might be writing a parody, but no: the TBC is in earnest, writing about astral battles with the same conviction and energy as the “real world.” He even comes up with his own obscure and confusing terminology (Horologists! Anchorites! Psychosoterica!). And while an author like Thomas Pynchon might play with the genre to make it serve his own purposes, creating an ironic detachment while commenting on the meaning of it all, Mitchell makes it the driving force of his story.

I found this approach to be reductive and unsatisfying, taking away the power of what came before. By reducing the hints of a larger pattern to the universe in favor of good vs. evil, it abdicates the field he set up by reframing it midway through the game. And I write this as a fan of fantasy novels, one who believes that, say , Neil Gaiman or Ursula LeGuin have a lot of meaningful things to say about our world. So fantasy is not in and of itself a bad thing. So why does Mitchell’s fantasy not work for me while others do? I suspect it’s because authors like Gaiman and LeGuin present those elements of their stories from the beginning, and so you’re on constant footing throughout.  But when Mitchell, who has written so insightfully and beautifully about the nature of reality and our perceptions of it, introduces fantastic elements into an interconnected world previously without it, – well, I felt let down. Like he belittled what came before it.  (Which is a funny thing to say about a book like Cloud Atlas that did include SciFi and Fantasy elements, but I felt the two books dealt with it differently.)

Now, all of this isn't to say that TBC is not an excellent book. On the contrary, the novel contains the same furiously addictive prose, the excellent characterization, diving into motivation, seamless weaving of historical events and trends into the plot as the best of his work. I was thoroughly entertained. But by the end of the book, the edge was taken away. In the final section, I never was too concerned with Holly and her children, despite the mounting tension and danger – you just KNEW Marinus would appear and save the day. And my ambivalence of TBC stems from my mourning of that mystery. I’m curious to see if he continues the fantasy in his next book, supposedly “set in the same universe” as The Bone Clocks. Because regardless of what I've written above, he’s still one of the best authors writing today. I can’t wait for more.

Cross Posted on Thought Ambience

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Japan Trail Running Pictures

On the last day of 2014, I went running in the mountains of Tanzawa-Oyama Quasi-National Park.  The first bus to Okura arrived at 7:00 AM, just after dawn.   From there, a 4-mile trail ascended 3,800+ feet to the summit of Mt. Tonodake. Next, it was out and back to the higher summit of Mt. Tanzawa.  This stretch of trail provided the most amazing views of the day.  After lunch in the hut at Tonodake, the next destination was Mt. Sannoto to the east.  While the elevation changes along the ridge line were less intense, the trail was filled with shoe sucking mud, broken up by technical rocky sections.  After descending to Yabitsu Pass, there was just enough sunlight left to make the summit of Mt. Oyama, and then down the mountain to the lower shrine of Afuri Jinja.  Strava records the run as being 15.4 miles with 8,356 feet of elevation gain.  Pictures below.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Shoe Review: Nike Zoom Fly

The last time I was in the market for a new shoe, I wanted to try something different than my standbys - the Saucony Guides and Brooks PureCadence. In my online searches, the Nike Zoom Fly kept popping up as a shoe I might be interested in. Fascinating, captain - I had never thought of Nike as a serious running shoe producer, believing them as either a style or basketball shoe company. But the shoe sounded just like what I wanted, and was very reasonably priced. So I took the leap, having run in them three times. My reaction?
  • Good, if not great, fit for my feet. Roomy toebox, perhaps a tiny bit looser in the heel, but nothing that has been detrimental.  
  • There's a touch of support for us pronators.
  • Stiff sole. I'm hoping this loosens up a bit over time, but for the moment I would only want to take this on flat roads or the track,
  • Doesn't have as much cushion as I'm used to. Not a big issue, but I'm used to the softer forefoot of the Guide and PureCadence.
  • Light and fast. Feel very speedy in these shoes.
  • Stylish! I love how these look. Great colors. Not too much busy visual design like 99% of the rest of the current running shoe market.
Overall I can't say these are my favorite shoes but I do like them - and will like them even more if the sole loosens up a bit. Given that the price is extremely reasonable ($65 on sale at Running Warehouse), the Zoom Fly is a great value. 

Those of you interested in technical details, click here for more.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Race Report: 2014 Stone Mill 50

Since finishing my first hundred miler, running has been all about just enjoying myself: no weekly schedules, no training program, no goals, only one run longer than 25 miles.  But as the Stone Mill 50 got closer, I decided to test what I had in me.  It's a great event, almost entirely on rolling single track, at the best time of the year for a day in the woods.

This year, the race was led by new race directors, and they decided to start and end the race at a local elementary high school, instead of the high school that had traditionally been used.   Brilliant! This provided more restrooms, as well as a warm place for runners to check-in, to store bags for after the race, to see old friends, and to make new ones.  (It also meant a little bit of pavement running to get to and from the trailhead, but that was no big deal.)

Saturday was the kind of day when just about everything went right.

It was 26 degrees at the beginning of the race.  I settled in toward the back of the pack, saving my energy until the train of runners spread out.  My plan was to keep things at an easy pace that I could sustain all day long, walking up hills and running the rest.  For the first 25 miles, I averaged about an 11:00 minute / mile pace.  I then sped things up a little for the three mile stretch along the towpath, knowing that my drop bag would be at the next aid station and I could take a breather while I got ready for the rest of the race.  The final 24 or so miles, went by at about 12:30 minute / mile pace.

With aid stations every five miles, I figured I could carry a single water bottle.  I love the Amphipod Hydraform.  It's a no-frills 20 ounce bottle that is comfortable to carry all day long.  I also wore an Ultraspire Quantum belt, perfect for carrying six gels and several small miscellaneous items.

While I mainly relied on gels for energy, the aid stations were a welcome respite, offering grilled cheese sandwiches, hot chicken broth, PB&Js, and other goodies.  The volunteers at Stone Mill were amazing, even by ultra-volunteer standards, and I really am thankful for their coming out on a cold day to support us runners.  Strava suggests I had about 25 minutes of stopped time, versus 31 minutes last year, so I'm getting better and getting in and out quickly.

I chose to wear North Face Ultra Guides over Drymax Maximum Protection socks.   Blisters have been my nemesis in the past, but I didn't get a single one, notwithstanding having had to submerge my feet in several (cold!) streams.  I did score a few black toenails from kicking rocks and roots, but that's OK.   The Ultra Guides (now discontinued) don't have much of a toe bumper, and I prefer that.  With a heavy bumper, I am more likely to catch my foot and end up on all fours.  The Ultra Guides have a traditional running shoe toe, and I can quickly lift my foot off of the obstacle and keep going.

North Face Isotherm pants and shirt provided the perfect mix of warmth and breathability.  Temperatures increased to 39 degrees over the course of the day, and I was never too warm or too cool.  I find a Buff is better than a traditional hat for keeping my head comfortable.

I recorded my track with a Suunto Ambit, which gave me 52.8 miles and 5,006 feet of elevation.  My final time was 10:27:20, a PR by about 30 minutes.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Book Review: Gillian Flynn's "Gone Girl"

Gone Girl is  one twisted book. The first half of the novel – despite some rather cheesy diary sections – contains some excellent writing as Flynn paints a picture of Nick and Amy, a husband and wife struggling through a tough life together. While they ostensibly are doing the same things, the chapters that alternate between their points of view reveal they are experiencing two very different realities. Filled with insights for anyone who has been in a close relationship for any significant period of time, it's easily the best part of the book. And while it’s obvious that there’s a twist coming, this is not telegraphed nor does it detract from the power of the story. However, once the secret is revealed, the book transforms into a thriller – a highly accomplished and exciting ride, to be sure, but one that wasn't as consistently insightful and engaging to me as the beginning.

[Spoiler alert!] This is partly due to the fact that, in the end,  the wife Amy becomes a super-criminal, inspiring awe in her ability to plan her way out of the most incredible situations. This ability dehumanizes her and thus belittles the interesting observations that she’s made before. For example, the famous Cool Girl speech, one of the best moments of the book, takes on a new light once you comprehend the depth of Amy’s psychopathic personality. I suspect that Flynn would argue that Amy’s perspective allows her to achieve these bitterly insightful observations, but I found myself pondering why I would trust anything stated by such a twisted personality.

And it wasn’t just Amy, all of the characters got flatter and flatter as the book went on. The only one that remained real to me the entire way was Go, serving as the Greek Chorus, keeping us grounded as to the insanity of it all.

The ending of the book is just fucked up. Expertly executed, it floored me in its cynicism, leaving me quietly angry at both the characters and the situation. I haven’t been this affected by an ending since Fight Club – high praise indeed. As frustrated as I found myself with the book, it’s stuck with me a long time.

In closing, i'd like to thank Ms. Flynn for giving us Tanner Brock: the best name for a lawyer, ever.

Cross Posted in Thought Ambience