Saturday, May 16, 2009

Yesterday I finished Gaudeamus by John Barnes.

An odd little book. Basically, a bunch of tales told to the protagonist by a friend, tales involving magical physics devices, aliens and telepathy. Are they true or false? Even the protagonist doesn't know. And to add to the weirdness, the protagonist is the author himself. I'm not sure why that is - maybe Barnes is trying to create a feel like some of the early pulps or Burroughs books, where the story is purported to be true and dictated to the author.

The story itself is just OK - nothing special, but somewhat amusing. The characters who tells the story might be a little offensive to some people, in the words he uses and the ways he refers to people, and the author himself takes some swipes at science fiction fans along the way for some reason. Other than that, not much to say about this book. It falls in the middle of books by Barnes I've read, between ones I've liked and ones I've hated.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Last night, we felt like going to see some theater. We ended up seeing Bright Young People, put on by the youth conservatory of the SF American Conservatory Theater.

It's a tribute to the words and music of Noel Coward, stitching together a bunch of scenes and musical numbers that he wrote. It was surprising to realize that thought I had heard of Coward, I had not heard a single one of these songs before, or seen or read any of these plays. His take on the playful aristocracy doesn't seem to have caught hold in current pop culture.

The singing and acting by the young performers was quite good. A few rough spots here and there, but overall well done, particularly for people who are mainly juniors in high school.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

I've finished two books since I returned from vacation.

The first is Juggler of Worlds by Larry Niven and Edward M. Lerner, sequel to their earlier Fleet of Worlds. Like the previous book, this one's greatest weakness is it's relationship to Niven's other Known Space stories. In fact, this one has that weakness worse. Time and again, just when the book gets interesting in it's own right, it digresses to show a new character viewpoint on a previous story, or to add some twist or new knowledge. The result is a mish-mash that doesn't stand well on its own, and undermines the earlier stories.

The second was Freedom & Necessity by Steven Brust and Emma Bull. I had read this one before, many years ago, since I am a huge Steven Brust fan, but didn't like it that much. I picked it up again because I was on a thirteen hour plane ride and had finished the book I was reading. Stacey was reading this one, so I started re-reading it anytime she was sleeping, and I enjoyed it much more this time.

It's told in epistolary form, mainly of letters between the four main characters, James Cobham, his step-sister Kitty and their cousins Richard Cobham and Susan Voight. The novel is set in the mid 19th century, after the Chartist movement has failed. James was involved in that movement, and in various violent acts, and his past has come back to haunt him. We find this out slowly, as well as further complications, as more and more letters develop the back story and characters.

The novel makes good use of it's epistolary nature, having some letters reveal different details or mis-representations that various characters have told in previous letters, but it does make it a longer read than is strictly necessary for the plot. Fans of Brust and Bull should know what they are getting into before they read the novel, to avoid disappointment. (Possible spoiler alert) Although there are earlier hints that seem to lean in this direction, there are none of the fantasy elements that occur in their other works.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Vacation 2009 - day 15

May 5, 2009 - Orleans/Paris

Up for a hotel breakfast, went out to scout which stores opened when for Stacey. Since this was our last day in France, she wanted to see if she could find some good clothes or good food.

Back to the hotel to check out and then to the train station. Stacey shopped for a while in the mall next to the train station and then for a while at Cop Copine, Stacey's favourite brand, and one that is hard to find in the US. Afterwards, we caught the train to Paris.

We found our hotel, the Hotel Bervic. It's right in the center of Paris, very conveniently located near the Gare du Nord train station, which seemed like a very bad neighbourhood. Very scummy and dirty, with bars on all windows, etc. Reminded me of the San Francisco Tenderloin. The hotel room wasn't particularly clean, and had no towels. We had to ask repeatedly to get them, and to go up and down the four flights repeatedly of stairs (no lift/elevator) to get them. I'm not sure you could pay me enough to stay there again.

We tried to get into a nice restaurant Stacey knew about, but they were full up. We ended up eating at a place called Brasserie Lipp. It looked good from the outside, but the food we got was pretty terrible - mediocre fish and overdone veal in cream of mushroom soup!

Then back to the hotel, to get ready for the plane out the next morning.

(pictures from Paris)

Vacation 2009 - day 14

May 4, 2009 - Orleans

Up for 7:30am breakfast, talked to hotel staff about touring around. They thought it would be difficult without a car, but it turned out to be impossible to find an automatic transmission to rent. She suggested talking to the local TI. We walked over to the city center and found the TI, and based on their advice, hoped on a 40 min train ride to Blois. From the Blois TI, we bought tickets on a bus tour that included a number of chateaus.

The bus driver was very nice, spoke English, and because we were the only two people who showed up for this particular time of the tour, we got a lot of extra attention and information. The first stop was Chambord, built by Francis I to show off after he re-took Milan but not completed till the reign of Louis XIV. It has a funny history - it spent more time abandoned than being lived in. But it is a very impressive building nonetheless.

The second stop was Cheverny, a family house lived in until 1985. Very fancy, surrounded by a park, but not on the same scale as Chambord.

The third stop was back at Blois, where there is a royal chateau but we didn't have time to see the chateau. Instead, we had supper at the train station restaurant (based on the local tour driver's recommendation) and then caught the train back to Orleans.

After we got back, we wanted to just get a nice dessert. We went to a nice looking restaurant and were able to get seats, but it turned out that they don't just serve dessert - not sure if it was just that restaurant or all French restaurants. In either case, it was pretty annoying. We walked around for the rest of the evening just checking out the architecture in Orleans. At one point, someone driving by yelled something at us and something hit my jacket. Probably just stupid kids, but not a great end to the day.

(pictures from Orleans)

Vacation 2009 - day 13

May 3, 2009 - Paris/Orleans

Up to catch Eurostar to Paris. Pretty boring train ride. Got into Paris, checked our luggage so we could wander around for a few hours before our train to Orleans.

Made our way to the Paris Laduree, but it took a long time on the Metro due to some people being on the train line at one point. Had to get off the Metro and walk to the Bastille area to catch another train. Stacey picked up some more macarons and jam at Laduree. Saw the outside of the Louvre on the walk back to train. Caught the train to Orleans and walked to our hotel, which is right on the Loire river. We then walked to the old part of the city to find food.

Since it was Sunday, mostly everything was closed. We ended up eating at an Indian place that looked good, but turned out to be pretty awful. Stacey's dishes were too creamy and my rogan ghost took so long to arrive that Stacey had already finished all her dishes, and then it turned out to be the worst lamb dish I've ever had. We ended the day by walking back to the hotel along the Loire.

(pictures of Paris and Orleans)

Vacation 2009 - day 12

May 2, 2009 - Cotswolds/London

Up for 8:30am breakfast. Met another couple staying at the B&B, a new couple that live in north London. He was a self-employed mortgage broker, she was a math teacher. Then went on a farm tour - beef and lamb farm, with crops just to feed them. Discussed some of the "City" money that owns some of the houses up here and only visit on weekends. Then drove back down to Oxford, found car rental place OK (with only a few wrong turns).

Walked around Oxford a little, but it wasn't very impressive, and had the worst lunch yet - panini sandwich for Stacey and a Cornish pasty for me. Caught train back to London, checked into hostel (clean, but dingy and had to sleep in seperate rooms).

Then we went to check out the exhibits at the British Library. Saw Shakespeare folios, the Lindisfarne Gospels, a Guttenberg Bible, original manuscripts from Jane Austin, Charlotte Bronte, etc. The original Beowulf manuscript was out - being restored or researched.

Then off to Harrod's - very claustophobic place, like a low ceilinged mall with a LOT of people. Stacey found the Laduree there and bought some mini-macarons. Then went to Soho to find some food. Couldn't find the place we were looking for, ended up eating at an upscale Indian restaurant - pretty good food. Then back to the hostel.

Vacation 2009 - day 11

May 1, 2009 - Cotswolds

up at 8am, nice breakfast at the B&B, off to Chipping Campden. Walked around checking out the nice village, larger than Stow and nicer than Moreton. Found an Arts and Crafts movement related museum, saw the manor house estate (which is actually rent-able), saw the church and stopped at a local famous silversmith workshop that had been around since the Arts and Crafts movement. Drove down to Lower Slaughter, parked on a country lane and walked though the village and then on a right of way path to Upper Slaughter. Very picturesque.

For dinner, we went to the New Inn, down the street from the Bell Inn and very different - much more homey, filled with locals (including three dogs) and basic pub food. I had a cottage pie with chips and Stacey had a half chicken with salad and new potatoes. Pretty good food.

(pictures from Cotswolds)

Vacation 2009 - day 10

April 30, 2009 - Cotswolds

up at 7am, breakfast at hotel, checked out and walked to Paddington station. Caught the Oxford train with no problems. Got into Oxford and picked up the rental car, a nice little Peugeot with auto transmission. It was starting to spit rain a little.

Made our way into the Cotswolds, with a few wrong turns on getting on the right freeways out of Oxford. Got to Stow-On-The-Wold and it was drizzling. Ate sandwiches in car, visited the TI office, walked around the town, stopping at various shops and down some side paths. Cute little town, but the rain is a damper.

Headed up to Moreton-In-Marsh. Stopped there to have tea, scones and bread pudding and walked around some. Less obviously touristy than Stow. Then off to the Manor Farm B&B in Weston-Sub-Edge. Turns out to be a very nice B&B, probably the nicest place we have stayed on this trip. Ate dinner at the Bell Inn in a neighbouring village - very expensive, not great food.

(pictures from Cotswolds)

Vacation 2009 - day 9

April 29, 2009 - London

Up around 8:15am, grabbed breakfast and headed off to Westminster Abbey again. This time we got in. The Abbey was stunning - the scope of the people whose burial locations we saw was amazing, from Edward the Confessor (who built the original Abbey), to Elizabeth I and her rival Mary, Queen of Scots, to scientists like Newton, Darwin, Faraday, Maxwell and Dirac, to authors like Dickens, Browning and Tennyson. All in a grand cathedral, with sections built in different times. The best section was the cathedral built by Henry VII, with its beautiful vaulted ceilings. We did the audio tour, which is worth the time.

Then we walked over Westminster Bridge, enjoying the views back of Parliament and Big Ben. We walked along the south bank of the Thames, past the London Eye, to the Tate Modern. Built in an old power station, it is an imposing building. Inside is a world class modern art collection, but I have to admit that I don't care for most modern art. After a few hours there, we headed over to Baker Street. Their tube station even has a Sherlock Holmes theme - with wallpaper and a statue. We went to the Sherlock Holmes Museum at 221B Baker Street, even though that address wouldn't have existed back then. The museum was an old lodging building where they have created a facsimile of what 221B might have looked like. Slightly cheesy but a must see for real Sherlock Holmes fans.

From there, we went to the old Tate, called the Tate Britain. It was near closing, but we got to see the Blake exhibition, a re-creation of a solo exhibition he did in 1809, the pre-Raphaelites and the Turner section. I liked these more than most of what we saw at the National Gallery.

Then we had suppoer at the Opera Room of the Chandos Pub just off Trafalgar Square (nice, relatively cheap, pub food), used the internet cafe again for a while, walked up Charing Cross to find a bookstore, bought a road atlas and an Iain Banks book (hard to find in the US) at a Foyle's, then caught the tube out to White City just to see a different part of the city. We walked around there, from White City back to Shepherd's Green, past Westfield Mall, and then back to the hotel.

(pictures from London)

Vacation 2009 - day 8

April 28, 2009 - London

Slept in a little, crappy breakfast at the hotel, off to see Westminster Abbey. Weather was nice, so we decided to stroll through Kensington Gardens a little first. Got to Westminster Abbey, turned out to be closed this morning for some reason. Saw Big Ben and the the Houses of Parliament as we walked by.

Walked up to Trafalgar Square, past the Horse Guards and 10 Downing Street. Trafalgar Square and its Nelson statue were cool. We went into the National Gallery and made our way through everything except the pre-16th century works. We saw works by Rembrandt, Renoir, Cezanne, Manet, Monet, Da Vinci, Michaelangelo, Turner, Raphael and others. Very impressive collection. We had lunch in the cafeteria underneath St. Martin's in the Fields. Decent food and good prices.

Then it was off to the Tower of London. Outside, they had set up a small catapult demo. Inside, we followed a guided tour by one of the Yeomen Warders - very informative and funny. He talked through the details of the Bloody Tower, White Tower, Traitor's Gate, etc. including a chance to go inside the chapel where those killed after being prisoners at the tower are buried, including Anne Boleyn. After the tour, we went in to see the crown jewels (very impressive and fancy) and then the White Tower, which currently houses a great Henry VIII exhibit, including a number of suits of armour actually worn by Henry.

Then we walked down the Thames a little, ate dinner (sandwiches from a Tesco), saw Christopher Wren's Monument to the Great Fire. Afterwards, we spent a few hours at an internet cafe near Trafalgar Square, walked down Charing Cross road (with tons of book stores) and then back to the hotel.

(pictures of London)

Vacation 2009 - day 7

April 27, 2009 - London

Up early, caught taxi to Waverly station and train to London. UK train stations seem much more understandable than ones in Italy or Hungary, and not just for language reasons. They just seem to be laid out better, with clearer signs.

The train ride was ~5 hours, through some very nice Scottish and English scenery. Got into King's Cross station around noon, picked up our tickets for the upcoming train to Oxford, bought 3 day tube tickets and then caught the tube to Bayswater and found the hotel. The weather was the worst so far this trip - medium rainy with high winds at times, bad enough to reverse both our umbrellas and to break one rib on mine. Our hotel room wasn't clean yet, so we dropped of our luggage and headed out to find lunch. Ate lunch at Cafe Diana, nearby Kensington Gardens. Not terrible, but got great or cheap food.

After that, we caught the tube to Tottenham Road and walked over to the British Museum. The museum was amazing - great Egyption, Greek, Assyrian objects, easily accessible, including the Rosetta Stone and the Elgin Marbles. In a weird coincidence, we ran into Stacey's cousin Jennifer there. She was on last day in London before heading for Paris.

After the museum, we stopped at a good comic store and I picked up a few collections that are hard to find in the US. Then we went to Leicester Square and picked up some discount theater tickets. We walked over to Covent Gardens, ate at a noodle place, and found the theater. The musical was at the Novello Theater, built in 1905, originally named the Waldorf but best known as the Strand. Very neat historical building. The musical was Spring Awakening, a relatively new musical based on a then controversial 19th century play. It was fun, very rock and roll, about some young kids exploring boundaries, etc. The first half was mostly funny, energetic and some what sexy. The second half was a total downer - pregnancy, suicide, abortion, reform school and death, but overall it was still enjoyable.

(pictures from London)

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Vacation 2009 - day 6

April 26, 2009 - Edinburgh

Up around 8:30am again, breakfast at the hotel. Headed off to do the remainder of the Royal Mile, down to Holyrood Palace. A little more upscale touristy than the uphill portion, with less shops and those that were there a little nicer. We intended to hike up Arthur's Seat, but I think we took a wrong turn and just hiked up the Salisbury Crags instead. Still a nice hike with great views of Edinburgh and the Firth of Forth. It was a partially cloudy day, with intermittent heavy winds and some what cold, but clearer so we could see further than we could from the castle.

After the hike, we had lunch at Always Sunday again and then walked back up to the room to get laundry. Found a laundry about 15 min walk from the hotel down Leith Walk and left clothes to get cleaned. After picking up the laundry, we headed down to south of Old Town to look around again and stumbled on The Meadows, a large green space that, unlike lots of the other ones we saw, is actually open to the public. We ended up eating at the Outsider again. We were going to check out a club called the GRV with some metal bands playing, but it was hard to find and it was getting late, so we decided to call it a night.

(pictures from Edinburgh)

Vacation 2009 - day 5

April 25, 2009 - Edinburgh

Up at 8:30am, had breakfast at hotel, off to see Old Town.

Stopped at Waverly train station to print tickets to London, saw the Sir Walter Scott Monument and the St. Giles Cathedral. Walked up the Royal Mile, saw a Writer's Museum, located in an interesting original Old Town house with a wicked spiral staircase, with displays on Stevensos, Scott and Burns. Then up to the castle.

Took a short guided tour (worth the time), saw the crown jewels and the Stone of Scone, Mary Stewart's birthing chamber (where she gave birth to James VI/I), the prison space, the great hall and the war museum.

Had lunch at Always Sunday and dinner at the Elephant House. After dinner, we stopped by a place called Forest - an alternative artists co-op where you can bring your own booze (but have to pay an alcohol tax) and self book the stage. It had a cafe, a hall for bands, darkroom, instruction for some art topics and a small art store with gallery. Very interesting crowd in the cafe.

After that, we went to a pub called Sandy Bell's to hear some more trad music. The bar was very crowded, very noisy and the music started late. The music was good but it was too loud to really enjoy it.

(pictures from Edinburgh)

Vacation 2009 - day 4

April 24, 2009 - Edinburgh

Up at 4am to get ready and catch a plane to Edinburgh. Dublin airport was crazy - very crowded at 5am and difficult to tell where to go. We got checked in and on the plane fine, in spite of Ryanair's repeated warnings about baggage allowances. No problems on short flight to Edinburgh.

Got to new hotel by taxi. Very helpful taxi driver who gave us some good tips, including a place to hear some live music - Sandy Bell's Pub. The hotel is in a posh location but under renovation. We couldn't check in till after 2pm, so we had them store our luggage while we walked around.

We walked to New Town by a round about route, going a little further north than we needed to. Seems like a nice neighbourhood, and we also saw the Georgian House and some nice views from below of Edinburgh Castle.

There seems like a lot of construction in Edinburgh, much more so than Dublin, as well as a lot of green spaces, most of which without public access. This is the first time I've seen an expansive park with a sign saying "for keyholders only".

After checking in, the new hotel (Royal Terrace) was disappointing. Posh location, but the view is spoiled by scaffolding and everything costs $$$ - no free wifi, laundry is multiple pounds per individual item. The wallpaper was torn and shabby looking, the room is smaller than the one we had in Dublin and the shower doesn't drain properly. This "four star" property doesn't hold up very well when compared to the Harding in Dublin.

After checking in and taking a break, we walked over the hill next to the hotel, Calton Hill, with some great views of the Firth of Forth. For dinner, we walked through parts of Old Town to check out two places - Elephant House (where J.K. Rowling wrote a lot of the early Harry Potter novels) and the Outsider ( a modern fusion restaurant). We chose the Outsider and it was quite good, more expensive than a lot of the local restaurants but still cheaper than most of what we had in Dublin.

After that we walked over to the Grassmarket area to join up with a literary pub tour at a bar called the Beehive. The tour was given by two actors who take oppossing sides about whether the writing life in Edinburgh was sordid and sinful or glorious and pure. It moved from location to location and highlighted some of Edinburgh's famous writers, like Robbie Burns and Sir Walter Scott, and many other I hadn't heard of. It moved through the Old Town and ended in the New Town. Quite good and highly recommended.

(pictures from Edinburgh)