Light in August, by William Faulkner

I recently read Light in August, by William Faulkner. This was my second Faulkner book, and I found this a much easier and more enjoyable read than The Sound and the Fury.

It’s largely set in 1930’s Mississippi, though the story-line does jump around quite a lot, both in time and space. There are two main threads, though one is really major and the other minor. The major thread concerns Joe Christmas, an orphan who ends up on the wrong side of the tracks. The other concerns a young woman, Lena Grove, whose boyfriend ran out on her when she got pregnant. She is tracking him down, and her path takes her to the same town as Christmas.

It’s not a light, nor quick, read, but as long as you’re paying attention it does all make sense, which was a bit of a relief. I had to re-read the penultimate chapter, as I obviously hadn’t been paying close enough attention, and got a bit confused towards the end of it.

I really liked this. There aren’t really any characters you can empathise with, which often makes it hard for me to engage with a book, but that wasn’t true here. The writing is lyrical, rich, and often very dense. I found myself drawn into the story, though not in the compulsive way that some books make you want to read just one more chapter. It felt like grown-up fiction / literature, written by a true craftsman with words.

Not for everyone, but I’m encouraged to read more of Faulkner.

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Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes

I mainly read Don Quixote because it’s on my list, which is compiled from other lists.
One of the source lists (compiled by Norwegian book clubs) was compiled by polling 100 writers from 54 countries around the world. They declared Don Quixote the top book in history. So I was curious: would it live up to its billing?

It was written in the early 17th Century and describes the adventures of Don Quixote. Quixote is a hidalogo who has read too many books about the adventures of knights errant; he loses his mind, and decides to wander Spain as a knight errant. He takes along a peasant from his village, Sancho Panza, as his squire.

For the first 100 to 200 pages, I really enjoyed it, and read it at quite a pace. The book is episodic, and in the early episodes you’re getting to know the characters, the setting, and Cervantes’ writing (and the translator). The writing is intelligent and funny, though not laugh-out-loud.

It’s a satire, but I’ve never read any of the type of book that it satirises — knight errantry, or chivalric adventures and romances — but the satire isn’t very subtle, so I didn’t think I was missing much. It has prompted me to download Amadis of Gaul, one of the works mentioned a number of times, on my Kindle.

After a while though, the episodes started feeling very similar, with a lot of repeated themes and phrases. Maybe this is an intentional aspect of the satire, but 400 pages in it started feeling like a bit of a slog. If a modern author wrote this book, I suspect it would get some serious editing.

Don Quixote was published in two parts, with a 10-year gap between them, during which time the first part obviously became well-known. Interestingly, and amusingly, in the second part, the lead characters are aware that their adventures have been described in a book. This plays a major part in a number of episodes, as they meet people who have read the book, and decide to play tricks on Quixote and Panza.

Given it was written in the early 17th century, it’s a surprisingly modern novel, but I did find myself wondering how much of that is down to the translation? I can’t read the Spanish original to find out, but there were a couple of places where I thought that the translation had tried a bit too hard to be modern.

I’m glad I’ve read it, and it’s clearly a historically important novel,
but I would think carefully before recommending it to anyone.

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The Hobbit

I recently re-read The Hobbit; the last time I read it was at least two decades, if not three decades, ago.

I really enjoyed it, partly due to the nostalgia of revisiting an old friend. It was much more clearly a children’s book than I expected / remembered. The story-line is very linear: first this happens, then this second thing, then a third thing, and so on. It’s a much lighter book than Lord of the Rings, and I fear that they’ll have made the film version of the hobbit more like LOTR.

The other thing that struck me was the complete lack of female characters, even in minor roles. I don’t remember noticing that last time I read The Hobbit, but I was probably into fantasy and science fiction at the time, and reading lots of “blokes go off on a quest” novels.

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Lucky Jim, by Kingsley Amis

When I started reading this, I feared it was going to be terribly dated, and that for a comic novel I wouldn’t find it very funny. It’s about a young lecturer in an un-named redbrick university, coming to the end of his first year, and fearing that he wouldn’t get a second one.

Hapless lecturer is a fairly well-worn genre these days, but I suspect it wasn’t when Lucky Jim was first published, in 1954. I steadily warmed up to the book: the writing is excellent, and it’s very well observed.

As I neared the end I wanted to keep reading, to finish it off. I was reading it in bed, but ended up laughing out loud and waking my partner, so had to put the book down. I think that’s a first for me.

My concise review would read: surprisingly good, and surprisingly enjoyable.

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Weight loss for the computer-literate

Over the last four months I’ve lost just about two stone, at a steady rate of half a stone per month. The executive summary for how to lose weight is “eat the appropriate amount of food in a balanced diet”. I’ll expand on that slightly, with what worked for me.

I spend most of my work day sitting in front of a computer, and I have a sweet tooth. I got away with the latter for many years, but as my metabolism slowed down, my weight steadily increased. I knew I was overweight, and made half-hearted efforts to lose some weight, but I just enjoyed my food too much. Various things brought home to me that I really should lose some weight (not least of which was my five year-old son telling me I had a big tummy), my business partner showed me that with some will-power it wasn’t that hard, and a TV program gave me the final impetus.

Here’s my simple plan

  • Have a specific goal (mine is 11.5 stone).
  • Weigh yourself as regularly as you can, using accurate scales.
  • Record your weight in a spreadsheet, and plot a graph.
  • Eat sensibly.
  • Kick-start your weight-loss to get the feedback loop going.

Have a specific goal

This doesn’t really need much explanation. You can find plenty of stuff to back this up online. You’re more likely to be successful if you have a specific and measurable goal.

Weigh yourself regularly

Weigh yourself daily if you can, or at least every other day. If you haven’t got accurate scales, get some. A digital display helps, as you want to track changes of a quarter or half of a pound. Weigh yourself at roughly the same time every day. I weigh myself in the morning before breakfast, but it doesn’t really matter when as long as you’re consistent.

Record your weight and plot a graph

The combination of near-daily weighing and plotting gives you a good feedback loop, so you see the negative effects of eating too much, and the benefits of sticking to the program.

Our scales read out in stones and pounds, so I created a simple spreadsheet:

weight-sheet

In Excel you can then select the date and weight columns (including the headings), and select the marked scatter plot from the selection of charts. Here’s my plot for the last 4 months:

weight-plot-plus-trend

Adding a trend-line helps with the feedback loop. In Excel, click on one of the markers, then right-mouse click to bring up the menu:

trend-line

In the options for the tend-line you can display the formula, as I’ve done here. This shows that on average I’ve lost 0.19 pounds per day. You can also extend the trend line a number of days, which shows where you’re heading for.

Eat sensibly

Eat more fruit and vegetables. Take it easy on starchy vegetables like potatoes, parsnips and the like. Take it easy on carbohydrates like bread and cereal. Cut back on sugar and fat. While you’re losing weight you’ll have to be more strict on some of these. I used to eat a lot of chocolate, snacks, cakes and biscuits; I haven’t cut them out completely, I just limit myself on any given day.

During the week a typical day might now be:

  • For breakfast, a small bowl of cereal with fruit.
  • For lunch, a bowl of soup, maybe with some bread (but less than I used to have). If I’m not on track, then I might skip the bread.
  • Less restricted on dinner, but I generally eat less bread / noodles than before, and probably a bit more vegetables.

I’ll often still have chocolate in the evening (but quite a bit less than I used to!), or a piece of flapjack during the day (hard to resist the flapjack made by my business partner’s wife). I’m less careful at the weekend, though with a roast dinner I’ll eat fewer potatoes and more ‘good’ veg.

I don’t count calories, but I’m a lot more aware of the rough number of calories in some things. Over the four months I’ve improved my awareness of how much I need to eat, and how much I’m actually eating.

Kick-start the feedback loop

I found that the regular feedback of the graph makes a huge difference: you get a feeling for how much food you need to eat, you see the up-tick when you eat too much, and the improvement when you’ve had some “good days”. You can see on my graph that there are some data points where my weight seems to jump up; many of these are weekends or take-aways. Seeing those up-ticks made me more determined to have a few good days, to “keep the line going”.

When you start out you won’t have a trend though, and having a good start means you’re more likely to stick with it. Just before I started there was a TV program that talked about fasting and partial fasting. In my first week or so I had a couple of light days: a banana for breakfast, soup for lunch, and something light (but protein heavy) for dinner, like an omelette. Proteins take longer to digest, so you feel full for longer, and are less likely to snack.

Doing this has meant I can intentionally fall off the wagon, knowing that I’ll see an upswing, and will have to work a bit to bring things back on track. Around my birthday I indulged a bit more, though probably not as much as I might have in the past. But I felt like I did it in a controlled way. Plus my stomach feels like it has shrunk slightly over the last four months: I feel fuller, sooner now, which helps with self-regulation.

One final point: the earlier weight loss is easier. As you approach your target weight, the curve will start to plateau. You’re now eating close to the right number of calories per day, so you’ll lose less per day. Right now I feel like I’m working a little bit harder to get down the last few pounds. The game will change to maintaining weight, rather than losing it, so I probably won’t weigh myself as often.

Note that I’ve said nothing here about taking more exercise. I haven’t changed my exercise habits in the last four months. That can be one of my next projects!

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Book Review: Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand

The executive summary of this review is: don’t read this book.

The one paragraph review is: don’t read this book unless you really need to. For example, if you need to read this for your course, or because you’re determined to read all the books on some random list of 100 books.

This was one of two novels where Rand expressed her philosophy of objectivism, the belief that “that the proper moral purpose of one’s life is the pursuit of one’s own happiness (or rational self-interest)”.

That’s all well and good, there are plenty of fine novels that in addition to telling a good story, also get across the author’s philosophy. But Rand’s thought process seems to have been “I’ll have the good guys (and one gal) and the bad guys, and each will stand round making little speeches, making their philosophy clear”.

There is a good story hiding in this book, but it’s drowned in the over-long tedious speeches made by two-dimensional characters, and if you’ve any sense you’ll have given up before getting to most of the decent bits. A friend who started it at the same time said that she just skipped forward once it was clear that Rand was going off on one. Rand doesn’t just make a point, she batters you with it repeatedly, in uninteresting prose.

The low point of the book is reached after about 1000 pages (you’re probably wondering what I was doing still reading at page 1000. See paragraph 2 above). The chief good guy makes a radio address to the world, explaining where things have gone wrong, and what needs to be done. It’s sixty-something rambling pages trying to explain objectivism. From the perspective of the novel this is just about the worst chapter I’ve read in any book. If the hero is meant to be selling the general populace on the philosophy, he could hardly do a worse job. It took me ages to slog through it. It meanders all over the place, repeating ideas over and over. I can’t imagine many of the population would listen to it all. And I assume that this was meant to be the high point of the book, where Rand convinces the reader of her philosophy.

What this book needed more than anything was decent editing. There were patches where it almost seemed that Rand forgot about hammering home the philosophy, and concentrated on the story. My reading pace picked up, and I actually enjoyed it. Sadly these were few and far between.

This book took the longest to read of any book I’ve ever read. Ulysses was hard work, but I felt like it was worth it. Atlas Shrugged knocks Middlemarch into second place as the least enjoyable book that I’ve completed. The other of Rand’s novels espousing objectivism is The Fountainhead, which she wrote first. I read somewhere that she felt the ideas were better expressed in Atlas Shrugged, so I won’t bother reading The Fountainhead.

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The plural of ‘lego brick’ is not LEGOS

For some reason this bugs me waaaayyy more than it should. I see lots of (blog) posts saying things like how to glue legos together (wtf?).

That’s plainly wrong. These people probably think the plural of sheep is sheeps, mouse mouses, data datas.

You won’t find the Lego company using legos. If you use google, the mentions are on forums and other third party mechanisms. I imagine (ok, hope) that it’s a firing offence if a Lego employee ever uses the word legos.

There, I feel better now.

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