Category Archives: travel

Books about travel and travelling.

Review 197: The Long Earth

The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

It is said that the population of the whole world, if packed together into a city of the same density as New York City, would fit into the current boundaries of Texas. This Texan mega-city wouldn’t be a pleasant place to live, and there’s the challenge of infrastructure and living space and waste management, but the point is clear: there’s a lot more space on Earth than we think there is.

True, a lot of it is unfriendly to us – ocean, desert, ice, mountains, New Jersey – but still, despite our habit of packing ourselves into tightly-bound metropoli, there’s a lot of room on this earth to spread out.

Now imagine there was another Earth just a step away. A simple exertion of will, perhaps aided by a small device that anyone could make at home with a potato and some spare parts, and you’re in a new world, untouched by human hands. You’d be standing in the same place you left from, but on another Earth. And if you don’t like that one, well, there’s another Earth just a step away. And another. And another. An infinity of Earths, each one so very slightly different from the one you left, each with its own story to tell.

I’ll take the fifth Earth on the left. It’ll go well with my living room.

With the potential for an entire planet per person, what would that do to the world? Who would go and who would stay? What would happen to the “original” Earth, or Datum Earth as it’s called in this book? The ramifications of the Long Earth are far-reaching and unsettling indeed, as is the quest to map it.

Of the people on Datum Earth, most are able to step with the aid of a Stepper, a small box that they can build from freely available parts using plans that were posted to the internet by a mysterious engineer named Willis Linsay. As long as you follow the instructions properly and to the letter, you should be able to step from Earth to Earth with ease and only a minimum of discomfort.

The first wave of devices were built by kids, prompting an initial missing-children panic as kids popped out of this universe with hastily-built Steppers, completely unprepared for what they were getting into. Soon, though, more and more people were stepping out, eager to explore these strange new worlds.

At the forefront of this wave of colonization were the rare few who could step from world to world without a Stepper. One of these is Joshua Valienté, who was propelled to fame when he rescued children from their first journeys on Step Day. Joshua is hired by the Black Corporation to explore the Long Earth. With the support of Lobsang – formerly of Tibet and now an artificial intelligence – Joshua is going to step as far as he can go and see what there is to see at the distant ends of the Long Earth.

And for every one of you, there is another one with a goatee.

This is a genus of book that I really enjoy – one that takes a simple, straightforward idea and tries to find all the angles of it. To that end, Pratchett and Baxter look at how the people, governments, and businesses of Datum Earth adjust to this new reality. And some of the questions are decidedly thorny. Is America still America on all Earths? If someone commits a crime in an alternate New York, could they be prosecuted by the NYPD? What happens to the value of commodities such as wood or gold when you have a nigh-infinite supply of it? And what happens to a nation when its people start stepping out en masse?

There is a sub-plot in the book, following police Lieutenant Monica Jansson, who becomes the law’s expert on stepping, with all the challenges that come with it. For example, what can you do to stop someone from stepping one world over, taking a few steps to where a bank vault should be, and then stepping back? How do you make a space step-proof against intruders? And what do you do with the increasingly disgruntled percent of people who can’t step at all? That’s to say nothing of the scam artists, the escapees, and the people who just abandon their lives to walk the Long Earth. It’s a concept rife with possibilities.

Each Earth is slightly different, representing an Earth that could have been. Some are steaming jungle, others arid wasteland and still others are lush and perfect for agriculture. There are animals that claim descent from the megafauna of North America, from our own ape-like ancestors, and from dinosaurs, and others still that are unlike anything on the Earth we know. On none of them, however, are there humans – only the Datum Earth has those.

You can have my gun when you pry it from Anton Checkhov’s cold, dead hands!

As great as the concept is, though, I found myself disappointed by the end of it. It seemed like Pratchett and Baxter missed a lot of good opportunities for the story, failed to fire at least one of Chekhov’s guns, and let the Datum Earth plot line with Monica Jansson go woefully under-explored. Furthermore, while the Big Bad at the end was certainly big, it wasn’t that bad, and it was dealt with in a rather perfunctory and, in my opinion, unfulfilling manner. The ending was flat, with a bunch of loose ends that really should have been tied up, and there was even one question that came to mind that seemed so painfully obvious that I was shocked none of the characters thought of it: the Stepper boxes refer to the alternate Earths as being “west” or “east” of Datum Earth, and are built with a three-point toggle switch.

If there’s a west and an east, how about a north and south? What if you had four choices from any given Earth instead of two? I can understand leaving that option out for reasons of narrative simplicity, but it seems like such an obvious question that I’m surprised it wasn’t even raised.

Overall, I think the book fell under the same curse as so many of Neal Stephenson’s works: an amazing idea, done really well until the authors had to figure out how to end the book. There’s no real climax to it, no sense of fulfillment and achievement. Just a feeling like they had to stop somewhere, so they did.

That said, if they’re clever, they’ll make this a shared world project. I would love to see lots of different authors take a crack at some Tales of the Long Earth, precisely because it’s such a useful idea. There are so many stories that can be told, including the ones that got short shrift in this novel. Let’s hope we get to see that.

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[Jansson] opined, ‘Oh.’ This response seemed inadequate in itself. After some consideration, she added, ‘My.’ And she concluded, although in the process she was denying a lifelong belief system of agnosticism shading to outright atheism, ‘God.’
– from The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

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Filed under adventure, alternate earth, colonization, quest, revolution, science fiction, Stephen Baxter, Terry Pratchett, travel, world-crossing

Review 185: The Fires of Heaven (Wheel of Time 05)

Wheel of Time 05: The Fires of Heaven by Robert Jordan

One of the criticisms often laid at the feet of this series – and not unfairly – is that it is splintered.

Read any epic fantasy, and you’ll see that at some point, the author splits the party up. This is an almost guaranteed way to create more action, more storylines and, if you’re being paid per word, more money for the author. Tolkien, the grandfather of modern fantasy, did a nice job of splitting the Fellowship up into three branches at one time, and then brought them back together at the end. Since then, the technique has been a stock tool of any writer who is dealing with an ensemble cast in her work.

This pretty accurately describes the plot structure from here on out…

Jordan has taken this technique to its extreme. He used the standard method back in The Eye of the World – split the group into three, bring them all back together just in time for the climactic ending. Pretty boilerplate plot construction right there. From The Great Hunt, however, we began to see that having all of our main characters in one place at one time will be more the exception than the rule – while it starts and ends with everyone together, the beginning of The Dragon Rebornstarts us off with the party split again, bringing them all together only at the very last minute.

By my count, there are eighteen different point-of-view characters in this book, occupying four different major plot threads, only two of which actually manage to come together by the end. And it just gets more complicated from here on out. From my research, there is yet to be any point in the series where every plot thread manages to come together in one place at one time.

For some readers, this is supremely annoying, and I can’t say I blame them. You find yourself going back and forth from character to character, keeping up with storylines that are superficially unrelated, all in the hopes that they’ll pay off eventually. The circus interlude in this book is an excellent example. In an attempt to hide from the Forsaken Moghedein (whom Nynaeve seriously pissed off in the last book) and to get safe passage to the rebel Aes Sedai after the breaking of the White Tower, Elayne, Nynaeve, Thom and Juilin find themselves traveling with a circus. The logic behind this is that no one would ever look for them there, and I suppose they’d be right. I certainly didn’t see it coming.

I’m not sure why this never caught on as a dominant fantasy trope.

There’s a lot of good old-fashioned circus wackiness that goes on – Elayne puts on tights (which just scandalizeNynaeve) and learns to walk a tightrope. Nynaeve ends up being the target for Thom’s knife throwing and battles her own distaste at the skimpy clothes she has to wear versus the fact that she thinks they look pretty. Now I’m not saying that nothing important happens during the circus interlude – lots of things do. It’s just that there’s no reason they had to take place in a circus.

And there’s no reason they couldn’t, either. After all, who’s the multiple-bestselling author, Jordan or me?

As opposed to a single POV series, such as Harry Potter, where you know where the important action is and who it’s happening to, Wheel of Time requires its readers to observe a world of characters. And I think that’s the key to how these books are structured. The events that are happening here aren’t just happening to one small group of people, or one kingdom. It’s happening to the entire world, from the edge of the Aiel Waste all the way to the shores of the Aryth Ocean, from Seanchan to Shara. Rand al’Thor may be the Dragon Reborn (or the Car’a’carn or the Cooramoor, depending on whom you talk to), but that doesn’t mean he’s the only one who has things to do. In order for the Last Battle to be won, a whole lot of things have to happen, and not all of them are going to be centered around our main protagonist.

I’d hang out with this guy, no question… (art by Seamus Gallagher)

In this book, for example, we have two groups looking for the Aes Sedai who fled the White Tower when Elaida became Amyrlin (I hope you’ve been keeping up, otherwise that last sentence makes no sense whatsoever). Siuan Sanche and Leane Sharif, the former Amyrlin and her Keeper, are traveling with Min (a young girl who can tell the future from people’s auras) and Logain (a former False Dragon whose ability to channel was severed by the Aes Sedai.) And then there is Elayne and Nynaeve, who were both out of the Tower when the rebellion took place, but who hate Elaida more than Siuan, so they’re trying to find the rebels. These two plot threads eventually merge, but it takes fifty chapters before that happens.

At the same time, there’s Rand, Mat and Egwene, who are leaving the Aiel Waste for Cairhein, hot on the trail of the Shaido Aiel, who are murdering and pillaging everything they can find. The Shaido are a “rebel” clan, who refuse to accept Rand as the Car’a’carn (the Aiel’s Chief of Chiefs) and have decided that the best thing for them to do is to kill everyone who isn’t an Aiel. Rand and friends chase the Shaido all the way to Cairhein, where they engage in a fierce battle to save the city from being ravaged by war for the third time in twenty years. Even within this plot thread, Mat, Rand and Egwene occupy their own strands, staying apart more often than they get together.

The fourth plot thread is a thin one – Queen Morgase of Andor, who has been gulled into complacency by the Forsaken Rahvin (who is posing as “Lord Gaebril,” the queen’s lover) has finally come to her senses, and escapes from her own castle. She doesn’t know where she’s going, or who will help her, but she’s intent on regaining her throne and seeing Gaebril hang. Lucky for her, Rand manages to take care of her little Forsaken problem by the end, although she’s unaware of this.

Meanwhile, the whole world is falling apart. The White Tower has well and truly split, something that the new Amyrlin, Elaida, is desperately trying to keep from the world. There is war and strife across half the continent, men who believe that the existence of the Dragon Reborn means that all bonds are broken, all social contracts annulled. The Prophet Masema – a man from the northern nation of Shienar – is preaching absolute devotion to Rand al’Thor as not only the Dragon Reborn, but as the source of all that is good. The coming of the Dragon brings not only a great battle with the Shadow, but great upheavals in civilization itself.

No, no – Wait! Don’t go! It gets better!

So, to say “there’s a lot going on in these books” is a bit of an understatement, and it’s Jordan’s fondness for creating new plot threads and then following them to see where they lead that has probably led to this series going on as long as it has. Had he just centered on Rand, it all could have been over in half the time. But it would have been far less interesting in the long run.

The characters of this world are fond of using a certain metaphor to describe life – the Great Tapestry. “The Wheel weaves as the Wheel wills,” they like to say, and they believe that each person’s life is a figurative thread in a greater system. Some characters, like Rand, Mat and Perrin, are more important than others, and they tend to bend other threads to follow theirs. But you cannot make a tapestry out of only three threads, and the end of the world in this series is something in which everyone may participate. Without the actions of the myriad minor characters, Rand wouldn’t be able to be the person he needs to be, and the story wouldn’t be able to be as rich and as complex as it needs to be.

So, give this some thought. If you’re the type of reader who prefers to stick with one character or group of characters throughout a series; if you don’t like having to keep notes on who is doing what and where; if you’re not the kind of person who would create a spreadsheet to note all of the different major characters, with color-coding and hand-drawn graphs…. Not that I have, mind you…. If that’s not your kind of read, then you may not enjoy this series. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s good to know what you’re getting into.

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“It would be easier if this was a story.”
– Rand
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Robert Jordan at Wikipedia
Robert Jordan at Tor.com
The Fires of Heaven at Wikipedia
Wheel of Time at Wikipedia
The Fires of Heaven at Amazon.com

Wheel of Time discussion and resources (spoilers galore):
Theoryland
Dragonmount
The Wheel of Time Re-read at Tor.com
The Wheel of Time FAQ
Wheel of Time at TVTropes.com

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Filed under adventure, death, epic fantasy, fantasy, good and evil, identity, madness, military, quest, Robert Jordan, survival, travel, Wheel of Time, wizardry, women

Review 102: Dave Barry Does Japan

(Just a reminder – take the listener survey! Or I will be forced to do the honorable thing and disembowel myself to rid my family of the shame….)

Dave Barry Does Japan by Dave Barry

In September of 2008, I went to Hiroshima with The Boyfriend. I knew it would be a more serious place to visit than a lot of the other places I’ve been to in Japan, for obvious reasons, and as I thought about it, I remembered this book. You see, while Dave Barry is enormously funny, and I always have a hard time holding in my laughter when he writes, he also knows exactly when to turn off the funny and talk seriously about a topic. Such was the case with this book, and the chapter on visiting Hiroshima.

Oh, how I wish he were.... (photo by me)

But I’ll get to that later. Let me start by saying that yes, this is a very funny book, as so many of his books are. I can only imagine, though, how funny it is to someone who’s never been to Japan, much less lived there. I’ll bet that, while reading some of the more ridiculous examples of how different Japan is from the US, a lot of readers were thinking, “No, it can’t be that weird. He must be exaggerating for comic effect.”

 

No, no he’s not. Not in the least. Well, some, yes, because that’s his job, but all of the things that he points out as being “strange” about Japan – the ubiquitous vending machines, rockabillies dancing very seriously in a circle, kids practicing their English with strangers, plastic food shops, all of it is absolutely true. He is not, in fact, making this up.

Literacy is not vital to eating (photo by xeeliz)

He says at the beginning of the book, “So this book is not authoritative. If you want authoritative, go buy a real book.” At no point does he claim to be an expert on Japan, or that spending three weeks here would make him one. In fact, the main aspect he plays on is his eternal cluelessness. As he points out, Japan is like one big, very exclusive club into which you must be born if you want to become a member. There are rules that no outsider can ever really learn, much less on a three week whirlwind tour. There are people who try – there are a lot of foreign-born residents in this country who do their best to live according to the rules, but no matter how hard we try, we’ll never really become members of Club Japan. So, Barry just decides to do his best and try not to make himself look completely stupid.

He marginally succeeds, which is good – otherwise there would be no book.

Kneel-down comedy. (photo by Norimutsu Nogami)

With his family, Barry goes from Tokyo to Kyoto to Kyushu and back again, stopping to see temples and shrines, sumo, ceremonies, kabuki, rakugo and car factories, among other things. Through it all, they do their best to adapt to the strangeness of Japanese life and Japanese food, and he comes out with some wonderful stories that had me cackling on the bus ride down to Hiroshima.

Which I believe I mentioned before.

It’s an interesting chapter in the book. The chapter itself is flanked by two grey pages – a signal to the reader that this is a no-funny zone. There will be no jokes between these pages, and rightfully so. Barry and his family went there on the anniversary of the bombing, August 6th, and observed the Peace Ceremony. They looked at the statues and the monuments and the dome, and went to the museum, and came out with an enormous sense of… conflict.

There is no question in anyone’s mind that what happened in Hiroshima – and Nagasaki – was horrific. All you have to do is read the testimonials, look at the photos and the drawings in the museum, look at the charred and burned school uniforms, pieces of flesh on display, dioramas of the flattened city and you know that the nuclear bomb is nothing that you can really joke about. Hundreds of thousands of people died because of those bombs, and not all of them died right away. Soldiers, yes -Hiroshima has a history as a military city – but babies, students, innocent men and women also perished in fire, blast, trauma and, of course, the long, lingering death of radiation sickness.

No city deserves that. Ever.

Not all that funny, really.... (photo by me)

At the same time, Barry feels that the bombing is presented without context, and he’s not the only one to think so. From what he could see, it looks like America just decided to do this horrible thing, and there’s not sufficient explanation to visitors as to why this was done. What would make a supposedly civilized nation do such a patently evil thing to so many people?

It’s very hard to justify what was done. I know the arguments – that Japan was training civilians to defend the home islands to the death, that millions more might have died in a long, drawn-out battle, that the Soviets were ready to swoop in and take over – but all those justifications kind of sound hollow when you see the photographs of people with fifth-degree burns, and read about the thousands of children who were orphaned in a fraction of a second. To those leaders, however, at that time, the dropping of those bombs was a necessary option, and I don’t think even they knew how bad the effects would be.

Regardless, the bombs were not dropped capriciously. They were dropped following a long chain of events, decisions and ambitions that reached back decades. And I think I agree with Barry that more attention should be paid not only to the aftermath of the bombing, but also to what led up to it. Maybe just because I don’t want my country to look like a monster.

This country is even weirder than he thinks. (photo by me)

Anyway, the Hiroshima chapter aside, it really is a very funny book. Even funnier if you’ve ever been to or lived in Japan. It’s not the kind of book you buy if you’re actually interested in learning about Japan, but if you want some good laughs, go for it.

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“Compared with the Japanese, the average American displays in communication all the subtlety of Harpo hitting Zeppo with a dead chicken.”
-Dave Barry, Dave Barry Does Japan

Dave Barry on Wikipedia
The Dave Barry Website
Dave Barry Does Japan on Amazon.com

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Filed under Dave Barry, Hiroshima, humor, Japan, travel, war

Review 64: Lamb


Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore

If you’ve been following my reviews over the last few years, I don’t see any reason why I should have to put a caution into this, but here it is: if you’re not interested in speculative fiction, open to the reinterpretation of the life of Jesus, speculation on the gaps in the gospels and the possibility of pan-religious values having been vital to the formation of Christianity, then you should probably not read this book. Nor should you really be using the internet – there’s just too much nasty “Free Thinking” out there. Take your hands off the keyboard and back away slowly.

Okay, that’ll weed out the wusses. Although, as I think about it, perhaps those are exactly the people who should be reading this book. I’m sorry for all the nasty stuff I said – come on back!

Each time I read this, I love it more. For one thing it’s Moore’s best work, without question. Not only is it blindingly funny, which is a hallmark of Moore’s style, but it’s also thoughtful, philosophical, and is supported by obvious research. Because he’s dealing with real places and real people, Moore has made sure that his depiction of first-century Israel is as accurate as he can make it. It’s all there in the details about the lives of the characters, the struggles they go through and the understandings they come to. Without hours of research as its foundation, the book would have failed almost instantly. Moore didn’t have to do it, but it is a great sign of his character as an author that he did.

This is also by far my favorite interpretation of the life of Jesus. It is the Gospel According to Biff, the best friend of Joshua bar Joseph, the man who would one day be called Jesus Christ. Of course, when Biff met him, the young Son of God was occupying himself by resurrecting lizards after his brother smashed their heads in. But they grew to be fast friends, and everywhere that young Joshua went, so went his buddy Biff.

The best way to describe Biff would be Jesus’ Sidekick. He’s a troublemaker, sarcastic, and far too prone to succumb to temptations of the flesh. But he’s clever and resourceful, and mindful of his friend’s mission on this earth. He’s young Joshua’s best friend in every way, so when Josh goes searching for the three Magi who attended his birth, Biff knows he has to go with him. The way to finding Joshua’s destiny will be long and hard, and Biff knows that his friend needs him.

The main part of the book has to do with Biff and Josh’s search for the Magi, to learn from them how Josh can be the Messiah. On their way they face demons, death and certain temptation, but also wisdom and experience from the wisest men in Asia. From Balthazar in the rugged mountains of Afghanistan, Joshua learns of the Tao, contemplating its Three Jewels – compassion, moderation, and humility. He learns about suffering and mercy and kindness and the effects they bring.

Biff, on the other hand, learns about the ways in which eight Chinese concubines can make life a wonderful place, night after night. He learns how to make potions and explosives, how to cast metal and read Chinese. He learns vital skills that the Messiah cannot – or must not – know.

From there they go to China, to a monastery high in the cold mountains to study with Gaspar, a monk of the Zen school. From Gaspar, Josh learns stillness and mindful breath, compassion for all things and, oddly enough, how to turn invisible. He discovers the divine spark that exists in all things, a holiness that no one can claim or take from you. He also learns what it’s like to be the only one of his kind, and foreshadows the tragic end that can bring.

Biff, of course, is learning kung fu and how to break bricks with his head.

Finally, they go to India to seek out Melchior, an ascetic yogi and the last of the wise men. Joshua here learns about sacrifice and blood, and the horrors that are perpetrated in the name of religion. He discovers the injustice of denying the Kingdom of God to anyone, Jew or Gentile, and the futility of trying to teach yoga to an elephant.

Biff, for his part, manages to put together a truly spectacular version of the Kama Sutra.

Don’t get me wrong – while Biff is certainly more earthly than his friend, he is also devoted to both Joshua and his mission. He is Josh’s anchor to the real world, always reminding him of his mission and making sure he doesn’t take himself too seriously. Biff, in this rendition of Jesus’ story, is a necessary element in the ultimate teachings of Christ.

As he admits in his afterward, Moore has tackled a very tough subject here, one that he knows is likely to rile people up. Jesus is one of those characters that is very set in peoples’ minds – he is the tall, beatific figure with a gentle voice and blue eyes who glides around in robes followed by insightful and worshipful men.

He certainly never ate Chinese food on his birthday, nor did he get hopped up on coffee or learn kung-fu. He’s never had a sarcastic best friend who was willing to risk damnation to describe what sex was like to the young Messiah, who was pretty sure that he wasn’t allowed to Know women. We haven’s seen Jesus get frustrated and yell at his disciples because they didn’t get the message he was trying to send, or be torn between what he has to do and what he wants to do. The Jesus in this book is an excellent meld of the human and the divine. He has the miracles and the powers, but his mind is human. He knows that he’s the son of god, but he feels like just a regular guy who’s been tapped to save humanity from itself. It’s a very difficult situation to be in, and Moore does a really good job of getting us to understand that.

More importantly, the life of Jesus hasn’t been this funny before. This is the kind of book that will piss off your family or co-workers, because you’ll want to read out passages from the book every five minutes, but you won’t get it out right because you’ll be laughing too hard. The way the book is set up, Biff has been resurrected by the angel Raziel in order to write a new gospel. Unfortunately, he’s been resurrected in the modern age, about two thousand years too late to help his friend avoid the awful, horrible sacrifice that he knows he has to undergo. So he writes in the modern American vernacular, assuring us that while the words may not be a direct translation of first-century Hebrew, Latin, Aramaic, Chinese or any of the other languages they encounter, the tone is accurate. And the tone is comedy, all the way through.

Of course, the comedy kind of drops off as the book races towards its unpleasant end, which is where my troubles with Moore as a writer usually lie. He tends to write endings that are abrupt and unfulfilling, as though he just wants to finish writing the book so he can, perhaps, get on with the next one. Even though we know how this story ends, it still feels rushed. Biff’s attempts to save his friend from horrible death make sense, but I would like to have seen them drawn out a bit more. I have a feeling that Moore could have added another hundred pages without breaking a sweat – and I wish he had.

The best thing, though, is that Moore treats his characters with the utmost respect. Nothing that Jesus does in the book is out of character for him, insofar as we know his character. And Biff is more than just a goofy friend of the Messiah – he is the reminder and the anchor of Jesus’ humanity. I’m not a Christian – I don’t claim any religion, in fact – but this version of Jesus would be one that I might be willing to give some time to.

It’s a brilliant book, in my top ten….

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“Josh, faking demonic possession is like a mustard seed.”
“How is it like a mustard seed?”
“You don’t know, do you? Doesn’t seem at all like a mustard seed, does it? Now you see how we all feel when you liken things unto a mustard seed? Huh?”
– Biff and Josh, Lamb
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Christopher Moore on Wikipedia
Lamb on Wikipedia
Lamb on Amazon.com
Christopher Moore’s homepage

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Filed under angels, Christianity, Christopher Moore, coming of age, demons, friendship, good and evil, humor, Jesus, quest, religion, travel

Review 60: Assassination Vacation


Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell

I first saw Sarah Vowell on The Daily Show and I was intrigued by her. This slight, dry, kind of sleepy-looking woman was not who you might expect when you run the words “presidential historian” through your mind (in my mind, “presidential historian” is usually an older man of leisure who’s managed to be lucky enough to turn a passion into a job), but there she was. The fact that she was also really funny impressed me even further. And so, since I have a long-running fascination with presidential history myself, I set out to Mooch this book. And it was well worth it.

Being interested in Presidents means a lot of things. For some, it’s the semi-regular top/bottom ten Presidents lists, or comparing one to another in terms of their accomplishments and scandals. Some people develop a fascination with the more obscure Presidents, hoping to rescue their names and deeds from the dustbin of history. Others look to see what kind of social or cultural changes they made in their times. In short, if you want to learn about the Presidents, there are a lot of ways you can go about it.

Ms. Vowell here explores the more morbid side of Presidential history, especially the inevitable morbidness of being in history-love with Abraham Lincoln. In the special features section of The Incredibles DVD (she played Violet), you can see that she compares Lincoln to a superhero, and has multiple instances of Lincoln idolatry around her home. She admires Lincoln’s steadfastness and resolve, his determination to hold the Union together, and the humanity that connected him to the rest of the common people. Lincoln, in life, has a great deal to appreciate.

Study Lincoln long enough, however, and you eventually get to the sad part – his assassination by John Wilkes Booth in 1865.

Sitting in Ford’s Theatre in Washington DC, she was struck by the same thought many people have when they go there – “Wow. This was the place.” She sat in the Chinese restaurant that was built on the site of the boarding house where Booth and his co-conspirators made their plans and thought the same thing. And before she knew it, she was on a pilgrimage, a holy quest to visit all the places involved in the death of Abraham Lincoln. And there are a lot of places to visit, in New York, Illinois, and even off the Florida Keys, to say nothing of the area immediately around DC. Lincoln’s assassination echoed from that box seat in Ford’s Theatre and shook the nation.

Of the four Presidents that have been assassinated, most people only really know about two: Lincoln and Kennedy. But there were two others brought down by the assassin’s gun – Garfield and McKinley. So Vowell expanded her pilgrimage to include them as well, giving them the same treatment and respect that she gives to her hero, Mr. Lincoln. Why she decided not to do Kennedy is not explained. Perhaps because it hasn’t been long enough since the event, or because there’s so much controversy surrounding it already….

The book is a nice tour through the lives of one President we all know, and two that we don’t. And it’s all fun to read, which is usually hard to do with history, much less the history of James Garfield. She reveals that each assassination came about by a complex series of events, and was triggered by many things – frustration, anger, despair, madness – and that each one was a tragedy, even if we don’t appreciate them all that much.

Along the way, we get a refresher on American history, and a little contemporary comparison as well. For example, the Spanish-American war, over which McKinley presided, bears a shocking resemblance to the current war in Iraq. Both were wars of choice, fought for material gain, and initiated by dubious claims of aggression, just for starters. “Then, as now,” she says, “optional wars are fought because there are people in the government who really, really want to fight them.”

One of Vowell’s great talents in this field is being able to link things together, so that the decision made by, say, John Wilkes Booth has effects that can be traced to Emma Goldman, and then to Leon Czolgosz. Or how the utopian free love community of Oneida, New York accidentally spawned the bizarre madman Charles Guiteau, and then went on to make rather nice teapots.

This is a technique that history teachers need to learn if they’re going to give the world more people like Sarah Vowell – an understanding that history is not a series of isolated events, where you can look at a name, a place and a date and say, “Well, that’s that.” History is an ongoing process, with cause and effect coming one after another, often in strange and unexpected ways. Perhaps if people could see how a single event in the past directly influences the way they live in the present, they’d take more interest.

It’s a fun read. If you weren’t interested in history before you read this book, you’ll at least be a little warmer to it afterwards. Also, she won my heart right in the beginning by saying that part of the impetus to write this book was watching Stephen Sondheim’s musical Assassins, which I know nearly by heart even now, so many years after it was put on stage back at Siena. Every now and then she’d sprinkle a bit from the musical into the book – Charles Guiteau was a hoot – and I’d smile knowingly. Must listen to that again….

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“There are people who look forward to spending their sunset years in the sunshine; it is my own retirement dream to await my death indoors, dragging strangers up dusty staircases while coughing up one of the most thrilling phrases in the English language: ‘It was on this spot…'”
– Sarah Vowell, Assassination Vacation
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Sarah Vowell on Wikipedia
Assassination Vacation on Wikipedia
Assassination Vacation on Amazon.com
Sarah Vowell at the Barclay Agency

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Filed under Abraham Lincoln, assassinations, history, James Garfield, presidential history, Sarah Vowell, travel, William McKinley

Review 25: Three Men in a Boat

Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) by Jerome K. Jerome

This book puts me in mind of the time my friends and I decided it would be a great idea to go to my mother’s house in the Poconos during spring break.

It was back in the late nineteen-hundreds, and we were a college cadre of Dungeons & Dragons players who had a great campaign going. “Spontaneous Combustion” we called ourselves, because of our habit of blowing things up at any opportunity. Not a weekend would go by that we didn’t burn, destroy, incinerate or otherwise defile something in our imaginary world. But we were exhausted from the rigors of trying to balance our school life with our raping and pillaging. I say “raping” because it really belongs there with “pillaging,” though to my knowledge there was no raping of anyone. Dismemberment, yes, and I believe my character managed to give a lot of people syphilis, but in a rather unconventional way.

The plan was simple: we’d all go down to the house in the mountains for a few days, have marathon D&D sessions, and generally enjoy each others’ company in quiet isolation from the world. The house was an idyllic place – all trees and silence and snow, with the occasional deer or wild turkey. It would be a truly beautiful and serene place for us to rest our wearied bodies and stretch our wild imaginations.

So, much like Jerome K. Jerome and his companions, Harris, George and, of course, Montmorency, who decide in this book that the best tonic for their youthful ennui would be a boating trip up the Thames, we all headed to the mountains of Pennsylvania to soothe our troubled souls and to bond as friends and boon companions.

Also like Jerome, Harris and George (to say nothing of Montmorency), we had no idea what we were really getting ourselves into.

The three men (and the dog) of Jerome K. Jerome’s story are like most travelers throughout time since the idea of traveling for leisure was invented: they have a Plan. The Plan, of course, is to have a good time with one’s friends while avoiding anything resembling work. Unfortunately, the world will often have other plans. In the case of this book, those plans involved angry swans, annoying lovers, unusually busy inns, bad weather and general vehicular mishaps.

Now that I think on it, though, the trouble they had with their boat – and there was trouble – wasn’t quite as bad as the trouble I had with my car on our way to the role-playing retreat. Thanks to a strategically placed pothole, I managed to blow out both passenger side tires on my car. Not all at once, though. The rear one went flat right away, causing the small caravan to stop on the side of a New Scotland road while I panicked and my friend Jon fixed the tire. I would have done it myself, of course, but this was the first Misfortune to befall my beloved car – whose name, for reasons too complicated to go into here, was Phoenix – so it fell to Jon to do it. The rest of our crew were milling about patiently, except for Jim, who was lighting road flares so that anyone who happened to be driving down the sunlit, arrow-straight, bone-dry stretch of road might not kill us all.

The second flat tire occurred in a small town, the name of which I have forgotten. Or blocked out. There had been a slow leak, and I was on my way out of the liquor store (we had to buy liquor, there was no question of that, though whose idea it was to buy the Jeroboam of red wine escapes me) and Jon says, “Don’t get angry.”

“Why would I get angry, Jon?” I replied, doing a passable imitation of HAL from 2001.

It turned out that the other passenger side tire had gone flat while we were shopping. This left us in a small town on the outskirts of Nowhere, at 8 PM on a Friday night in need of a tire. By some miracle, the AAA man we called knew someone who could sell us a tire so we could get on our way. The man, who turned out to bear a remarkable resemblance to Gene Wilder from Young Frankenstein, was happy to sell it to us, though he wouldn’t actually put it on the car. Possibly because he wanted to save us money by not charging us for the labor, or possibly because my car – adorned with a variety of bumper-stickers and interesting rear-view amulets – looked like it belonged to an angry gay druid. Whatever his reasons, we got a new tire on the car and were grateful for his help.

In discussing any trip, of course, one must eventually come to the weather. For Jerome and his friends it was the rain that defied their best efforts to stay dry and forced them to find lodgings in towns where places to sleep were already scarce. For us, it was snow.

Snow is common in the mountains through early spring, but we were prepared for that. Mom had called the plow service and assured us that the driveway would be clear when we got there. When we arrived (having first worked out the Problem of the Mismarked Map), we found that the driveway had not, in fact, been plowed and the snow came up to mid-thigh. We parked on the street, slogged through the snow and went to open the door. When the key wouldn’t turn on the second lock, I pretty much gave up and just wandered around the snow saying, “She only gave me one key,” over and over again until someone managed to get the door open. After about twelve hours of cataclysmic travel, we were There. We had arrived! Our objective was obtained and our journey was done! We could finally unwind and relax.

One of the difficulties that we shared with Jerome and company was with food. They packed well enough, of course, with all kinds of comestibles, but like all people who are not used to preparing and procuring their own food, the comedy that resulted was plentiful. Beef without mustard, infinitely peelable potatoes, strange and unfathomable stews – any traveler who goes on a journey without having some kind of food misadventure has missed half the fun.

For us, it was steak. Get a group of men together and their appetites will turn to meat. Oh sure, there might be a few green, hippie, godless Commie men out there who lean towards tofu, but they’re really thinking of meat, no matter what they say.

We had bought some steaks – the best our college-student budgets could handle. But how to cook them? For in every group of meat-loving men, everyone is a meat expert. It’s a mark of True Masculinity, the ability to cook a steak, and the insinuation that one cannot cook a steak is tantamount to calling the man a queer sissy fairy-boy.

What resulted from this battle of culinary wills was a dinner that consisted, mainly, of shoe leather, with everyone holding grudges against everyone else for Not Doing It Right. This was about the same time I learned firsthand why one should never chug blackberry brandy.

The myriad of problems that people have when traveling are, unfortunately, universal. Poor planning, bad luck, nasty locals, bad weather, pigheadedness and the unfortunate tendency of the world not to live up to our expectations of it – all of these conspire to make travel an endurance trial. What surprised me the most about this book was how similar Jerome K. Jerome’s troubles had been to my own.

As bad as things can be at the time, though, there comes a time, afterward, when you can look back and laugh. Safe at home, Jerome took his eventful, awful trip up the Thames and made it into an incredibly funny classic of English literature. The fact that the book is over a hundred years old doesn’t take away at all from its comedy value because the humor comes from the universal nature of travelers and traveling. We all go on our journeys hoping for a relaxed, congenial time, but we tell stories about the mishaps, misadventures and difficulties. They are, paradoxically, the most fun part of the trip.

So I laughed along with Jerome and his friends, remembering all the while the infighting, bad food, bad moods, burnt countertops, spiked spaghetti sauce and everything else that made that one Spring Break trip so terribly, terribly memorable.

Although, all things being equal, I would have been just as happy if we’d had… y’know, a good time.

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“They cursed us – not with a common cursory curse, but with long, carefully thought-out, comprehensive curses, that embraced the whole of our career and went away into the distant future, and included all our relations and covered everything connected with us – good, substantial curses.”
– Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat
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Three Men in a Boat at Wikipedia
Jerome K. Jerome at Wikipedia
Three Men in a Boat at Amazon.com
Three Men in a Boat at Wikisource

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Filed under classics, England, friendship, humor, Jerome K. Jerome, memoir, travel

Review 16: Watership Down

Watership Down by Richard Adams

This is one of my top five books. Whenever anyone asks me, “What is your favorite book?” this is at or near the top. It was the first adult-length book I read when I was in Elementary school, and I have every intention of getting my hands on a copy for my goddaughter at some point soon. I remember watching the movie when they used to show it annually on CBS, way back in those days beyond recall….

Why should this book, of all the books I’ve ever read in my life, stay so dear to me? I have no idea. Perhaps because, even though its main characters are rabbits, it isn’t a “talking animals” book. Adams didn’t talk down to his readers, and assumed that they were ready to follow Hazel and Fiver wherever they went. And so, unusually for children’s literature, there is violence and loss and true danger in this book. Characters die. Unpleasantly. The rabbits live in fear of mankind and the Thousand, and accomplish great things despite. They do what no rabbit had done before, and find a new world for themselves. And, of course, are forced to fight for it.

Our heroes, you see, are living an idyllic life in a warren in England. They do what rabbits do – eat, sleep, mate, and entertain themselves. But one rabbit, Fiver, can see more clearly than others. He can sense danger, and grasp the shape of the future, and he knows that any rabbit who stays where they are will certainly die. With his brother, Hazel, Fiver and a small group of rabbits leave their home.

They do what rabbits never do – they explore. They go through dense woods and cross streams. They hide among gardens and search for the best place they can find to set up their new warren – a safe place, high in the hills, where they can see all around and the ground is dry. They seek to build a new society, as so many humans have done in our history.

And what’s more, they try to build the best society that they can. The need leadership, yes, but how much? How much freedom should the ordinary rabbit have to live its life? This question becomes more and more important when they meet the cruel General Woundwort, de facto leader of the warren known as Efrafa.

The battle that they have, choosing between personal liberty and the safety of the warren, is emblematic of so many struggles that have gone on in our world, and continue today. Through a tale about rabbits, Adams manages to tell us about ourselves, which is the mark of a great writer.

As cynical as I have become in my years, I still find this story to be honest and true. Adams isn’t trying to make an allegory or grind an axe. He’s trying to tell a good story about hope and perseverance and triumph over adversity, a story with – as Tolkien put it, “applicability” – that we can overlay onto our own lives and experiences. The fact that the main characters are rabbits is incidental.

Well, not really. Another layer to this story is the culture that Adams has created. The stories of Frith and El-ahrairah (which, I’ve just noticed, is misprinted on the first page of the contents in this edition as “El-ahrairah.” Weird) are sometimes deep and meaningful, sometimes fun and silly, but always relevant and rich, in the tradition of oral storytelling. There is a language to the rabbits, which is regularly used throughout the book (and one complete sentence in lapine – Silflay hraka u embleer rah. Memorable….) Adams did a lot of research into the social structure of rabbits and their lifestyles, making it as accurate is it could be….

Anyway, every young person should read this. Hell, older people should read it too. Every time I read the story, it moves me. I can hear the voices of the characters clearly and see what they see. I am inspired by the steadfastness of Hazel, the strength of Bigwig and the resolve of Blackavar. I find qualities in these characters that I would like to possess, and that’s as good a reason as any to love a book.

As a side note, this book is the reason I got into Magic: The Gathering way back in college. For a long time, I thought it was just a stupid card game, with no cultural or imaginative merit. Then I happened across a “Thunder Spirit” card, which had a quote from Watership Down at the bottom:

“It was full of fire and smoke and light and…it drove between us and the Efrafans like a thousand thunderstorms with lightning.”

Still gives me goosebumps.

Anyway, I thought, “Maybe there’s something to this,” and the rest was (very expensive) history….

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“All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies. And whenever they catch you, they will kill you. But first, they must catch you, digger, listener, runner. Prince with a swift warning. Be cunning and your people will never be destroyed.”
– Frith, Watership Down
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Watership Down at Wikipedia
Richard Adams at Wikipedia
Watership Down at Amazon.com

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Filed under adventure, England, fantasy, made into movies, rabbits, Richard Adams, survival, totalitarianism, travel, war, young adult