Pondering the pleasures and perils of online reviewing

Reviewing is fun and (so I believe) a social good. A while back I had a go at it, focusing on fiction and in particular crime fiction. But it’s intense to the point of burnout, so it’s with apprehension that I’ve watched myself toy with the notion of launching a review site for books, rock music, and film. Should I dedicate one of my Big Years to such a launch? Can I be a success this time? Is it a meaningful use of my time?

Over this holiday, I’ve been reading stuff in order to prioritize and plan the next half decade or more. I took along “The Digital Critic: Literary Culture Online” edited by Houmon Barekat, Robert Barry & David Winters. Seventeen essays, the titles of which held some interest for me . . . at the tail end of my break, wrapping it up, I at last get through all seventeen, but to what effect? The sad truth is that this eclectic essay collection, while peripherally interesting and often well written, is academic and not close at all to my self-questioning. None of them tackle quandaries such as: what’s an ideal online review look like in the early 21st century?

The Digital Critic” was a waste of time for me but in the end wasn’t a waste of time at all. Reading forced me to think about my potential project. The upshot? Yes, I do wish to conquer the world with a new online mag but hey, Andres, don’t imagine it will be any easier than back in 2000.

Reading about birding isn’t as fine as birding

The concept of a Big Year comes from birding (or birdwatching, if you prefer), and at age 60 my plan was for Pam and me to do an actual Birding Big Year. You start on January 1 and try to see as many species as you can by December 31. Done seriously, such a big year involves both meticulous planning and obsessive activity, and while we would never aspire to compete with the most extravagant big years of the experts, we’d want to tackle something ambitious but also fun.

When to do this? Is the notion still attractive? During this splendiferous holiday, I’ve managed some reflection. Our first week was a guided birding tour in Spain (Steve West of Birding in Spain is a tremendous guide!), which reinforced the joy in birding. I read  “Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear: 200 Birds, 12 Months, 1 Lapsed Birdwatcher,” by Lev Parikian, an entertaining combination of a big year memoir and the tale of a less-than-expert birder (something that resonates with me). I also read Victor Emanuel’s “One More Warbler: A Life with Birds,” an autobiography from the other end of the birding spectrum, Emanuel having seen 6000+ bird species in his life. On our Way of St Francis one-month-long walk, I’ve had binoculars round my neck each day but seen few birds (the pictured Jay is probably my highlight, they’re common but hard to see, and a delight when you see them).

All of which tells me: yes, I yearn to do a Birding Big Year. When? My best guess is 2022 but who knows, who knows indeed.


I’ve skimmed, for the second time and with improved understanding, Paul A. Jonsgard’s wonderful “A Chorus of Cranes: The Cranes of North America and the World.” It set my heart alight . . . images like Mediterranean-sun-drenched red poppies.

2020 will be the Cranes Big Year. But I’ll say no more for quite a while, for the very good reason that the project is currently more hot air than anything remotely doable or commercial. Time to take it underground and do desk research until I’m “expert” enough to dare a bold plan.

Still, this excites me more than other ideas that have been alive for longer, and existential excitement is what brings life to life.

Back home in the mystery genre: Shetland and Jack Irish

As part of the Tractor Big Year, preparing for self publication in small licks every day, one decision has become clear. I’ll self publish the nuclear book but first will come number one in a series of murder mysteries, and to have any hope of promoting that, I need to return to that genre. A book omnivore, lately my reading has been all over the shop but my core reading preferences are murder mysteries and literary novels. I’ve decided to immerse myself once more the mystery genre.
As a start, I’ve watched the first three episodes of two recent, classically inclined, mystery TV series, Shetland and Jack Irish.
Shetland, based on the series novels of Ann Cleeves (which, to my regret, I have not read), about a policeman in the Shetland Islands, represents one perennial sub-genre, the police procedural. I began with Series 1 from 2013 (there are now four series!). Murders are committed and solved, amidst which the hero, Inspector Jimmy Perez, copes with life as a widower and father of a teenager. Douglas Henshall is superbly cast as the dedicated, principled Perez, and the rest of the cast is just as adept. Tight scripting and lush landscape cinematography add to an experience that is at once familiar and exciting.
Jack Irish, a scarred, barred solicitor existing around the edges of Melburnian society and illegality, was a creation of Australia’s finest mystery writer, Peter Temple (recently deceased). A couple of Jack Irish movies have been made, plus an earlier TV mini series. Netflix has a new season (from. 2016) in which fresh plots spiral out from the Temple books. Guy Pearce has always played Jack Irish, and here he is superb in a lengthy drama involving a shady church and Philippine crime. This is a PI novel, one in which the PI is almost shambolic but nonetheless a true hero, and the script progresses sharply and dramatically. Supporting roles by Marta Dusseldorp and Claudia Karvan are terrific, and all the regular bit players circling the persona of Irish are brilliantly cast.
I’ve only watched the first three episodes because I’d downloaded them, and travelling to Europe has shifted my apparent domicile so that episodes four onwards aren’t available to me until I return to Australia. I can’t wait to watch more once home.

Searching for meaning on a pilgrimage

I’m not a real pilgrim but my crude notion is to somehow use the Way of Saint Francis to “change myself” or “find myself” or “extract meaning” or “quest toward something” . . . in other words, to actively do something more pilgrim-like than trudge and recover and touristify and eat. So in Rome I buy a funny little notebook with a movie poster cover of Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita” and each blank page watermarked with that poster. Can I force myself to see more than the usual each day and to jot down something useful, something proactive?

I have eight such one-page scribblings by now, after descending from the chilly Appennines’ heights. They’re very personal, so I won’t share too many but just by revealing two such daily aphorisms, you’ll see how hard I’m trying and how opaque the results: “Cathedral’s green” and “Abandon the NOT!”

A Big Decade decision: Let go of one grand notion, Andres

Today was Day 5 of the Way we’re on. A short day and one with breathtaking beauty – passage through green tunnels of beeches and pines – so it offered a rare chance to think clearly. What’s more, this afternoon I finished one of the trip’s reading assignments – “Grit is a 4-Letter Word: The Psychology of Backcountry Travel” by Ann Gimpel. This clumsily titled book is a fascinating look at how “proper” hikers, those heading out with tent and stove into remote areas, handle and should handle their challenges. I enjoyed the read but . . .

. . . it’s time to address one of my proposed Big Years, the Hard Hike Big Year. I envisaged a year of tackling some iconic global hikes -Australia’s Western Arthurs; the Grand Canyon and some classic Utah adventures; the Tour du Mont Blanc; wending one’s way across the spine of Sicily. For so long, I’ve held in my mind a dream of achieving these tough hikes (compared to which, our current walk is a doddle) but now, with great regret, I have decided to dream those dreams no longer. I’m no longer entertaining thoughts of embarking on what are plainly younger mens’ adventures.

Why? Four key reasons: (i) not only are they extremely tough at the time, they take copious preparation, time I don’t have; (ii) I’m older and best focused, physically, on other types of hiking and exercise; (iii) Pam doesn’t want to do such walks; and (iv) they’ve lost meaningful significance for me.