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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 Рformerly of Tibet and now an artificial intelligence РJoshua 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 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 27: Three Cups of Tea


Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin

There are times when people recommend books to me, saying “You need to read this,” or, “I think you’ll enjoy this book,” and I take their recommendation seriously. I’ll put it on my Amazon wish list and then go on with my life. If I see it on the bookshelves, and my mood is right, I might pick it up. I take recommendations seriously, of course, but I know that they’re usually not imperative, in the same way that, say, a doctor recommends quitting smoking because your lungs resemble overcooked corned beef hash.

In this case, however, the recommendation was done by my stepfather, who gave a copy of this book to everyone for Christmas. Seriously, we were opening presents on Christmas morning, and by the time I picked up his present, the whole room chimed in with, “Three Cups of Tea!” Which, indeed, it was. To me, this counts as high praise and an imperative recommendation. I don’t usually buy books for people unless I’m damn sure they’ll like it, and I have never bought multiple copies of the same book to give to everyone I know. Even though this was a book I probably never would have bought for myself, I bumped it up in my reading queue and proceeded to devour it in a few days.

Now I understand.

This is the story of Greg Mortenson, an American man with a passion for climbing, and his story begins with a failure. He wanted to climb K2, the second-highest peak in the world and arguably one of the toughest, as a tribute to his sister who had died some time before. He attempted the climb in 1993 but did not succeed. Indeed, on his way down the mountain, he got lost, and getting lost in that part of the world was close to a death sentence. In the cold and rarefied air, where he couldn’t be certain of living through the night, Mortenson’s life was saved by a tiny village called Korphe in northern Pakistan.

The residents of Korphe took in this starving, half-frozen American man and helped him get well enough to return home. They showed a stranger great compassion, sacrificing resources that they would need for themselves in order to get through the winter. That in itself would make for a great story. But what happened while in Korphe is the trigger for everything that came next.

While the elder of the village, Haji Ali, showed his village to their guest, Mortenson was stunned by their poverty. Women and children died young, from diseases and problems that are unknown to us in the west. They had no electricity and no running water, and lived lives that were unforgivably hard. But what struck him hardest was the children trying to learn. They had no school – the government of Pakistan was extraordinarily cheap when it came to funding education in its more far-flung villages – but the children were still trying to learn. They would sit outside in the cold and the wind, scratching their numbers in the dirt, trying to learn the lessons that their part-time teacher left for them.

Upon seeing that, Mortenson made a promise to Haji Ali and the village of Korphe: he would build them a school.

I imagine that, looking back on that moment, Mortenson himself is probably amazed by how radically those few words – “I will build a school.” – would change not only his life, but the lives of thousands more people around the world.

The book is an account of how Mortenson went about building the school for Korphe, and what resulted from that effort. Just getting that school built was a challenge, financially, personally and spiritually. In addition to the basic fund raising problems that would accompany any such effort, he also had to deal with haggling in a foreign land, keeping other villages from stealing his resources to build schools for themselves, religious fatwas against him, and the discovery that before he could build a school, he would have to study up on bridge-building. Indeed, even once he got all the material into the village, there were cultural divides that put the whole process in jeopardy.

In order to fulfill his promise to Haji Ali and the people who had helped make the school possible, Mortenson had to learn how to work with the people of northern Pakistan, and that’s where the story gets interesting. He did not come to them as a savior. He came to them as a partner. He paid special attention to observing their customs and respecting their ways. Though not a Muslim, Mortenson learned how to pray as a Muslim and how to use the tenets of Islam to ensure that he didn’t sabotage his own efforts. He made it very clear that the school he built – and all the schools that came afterward – were not his schools. They were built by and belonged to the people of those villages, the people of Pakistan and Afghanistan. By helping them help themselves, Mortenson became a figure of hope for many remote and uneducated parts of Central Asia.

His charitable works aside, there is another level to this story, one that the writers take great pains to illustrate.

When 9/11 hit, many people’s first reactions – including mine – were rage. And we thought of our response the way nations throughout history have: a violent one. Planes and guns and bombs, that’s what would show them who’s boss! But as time passed, and the initial rage wore down, it became pretty clear that violent retaliation probably wouldn’t work on the kind of people who were willing to kill themselves in the name of ideology. There was no way that military attacks would eradicate terrorism. They might allow us to reduce their resources and their personnel, and it looks really good on CNN, but the root causes of terrorism would remain: ignorance and hatred.

I remember telling someone that if we want to stop terrorism, we have to eliminate the reasons for terrorism. We have to educate people and raise their hopes for the future. We have to show them an alternative to the mullahs and the radicals and show them that it is better to raise themselves up than to tear other people down.

Naturally, in a post-9/11 world, I was mocked for my bleeding-heart, peacenick ideas and told that I didn’t know anything about anything.

I am gratified to know that I was not the only one thinking that, and even more grateful to know that people like Mortenson and his Central Asia Institute were working with the same goal in mind. By building schools where there were none, by educating women and girls and teaching them to honor their own goals and potential, and by engaging with the vast majority of non-terrorist residents of Central Asia, Mortenson has probably done far more to promote peace in that corner of the world than any military force could. He has not only helped people help themselves, he has shown the compassionate, generous side of America that the proponents of radical Islam ignore. Thousands of students have passed through those schools, which means that there are thousands fewer people who might be willing to die in the name of a warped terrorist ideology.

It’s a great book, which opens a vivid window into a part of the world that most Westerners greatly misunderstand. It illustrates the wide variety of cultures and peoples that live in Central Asia, and the cultural history that has given rise to such a potential for conflict. The writing is very engaging, and there were a few points where I thought that the landscape descriptions were worthy of Tolkien – high praise indeed, I should think.

However, if I do have one problem with the book, it does fall with the writing. Aside from its melodramatic turns from time to time (when Mortenson gives a speech to a nearly empty room, you can practically hear the violins in the background), there’s a bias problem that bothered me. From the very beginning, Mortenson’s co-author, David Relin, admits that he supports Mortenson’s agenda in Central Asia. That would be fine if he weren’t presenting himself as a journalist, but since he is, I spent most of the book wondering how much of the drama was polished up to make for a more compelling story (which would, in turn, lead to more public support for Mortenson).

Indeed, Relin tells in his introduction how Mortenson gave him a list of enemies, saying, “Talk to them, too.” But the only actual criticism of Mortenson came from some CAI colleagues who said, in essence, “He just works too darn hard!” Any other enemies of Mortenson’s were either non-existent or caricatured, like the mullahs who brought their gangs of toughs to try and stop the building of schools. The opposition to his work was used as a set up to remind us how awesome he was. For example: several times, local religious leaders pronounced fatwas against Mortenson and his organization. Mortenson’s supporters in Pakistan then turned to the highest Islamic court in Qom, Iran, for their judgment in the matter. In what was admittedly a very dramatic scene, the court’s decision was revealed: Mortenson’s work was the kind of work that Allah would have any Muslim do, and there was to be no opposition by any Shia against him.

And that was that. As far as we, the readers, know, those angry mullahs just said, “Oh. Okay then, where shall we lay the foundation?”

Other than the somewhat messianic tone of the book towards Mortenson, I found it very compelling and enjoyable. It’s good to know that there are people like him out there, who are so single-minded in the pursuit of doing the right thing that they will overcome any obstacle in their path to see that it is done. It is also a refreshing view of an all-too-often misunderstood part of the world, a place which we really do need to understand if we ever want to bring the age of terror to a close.

So, I recommend this book. I may even put it up on Bookmooch to see that it gets around. But if you’re feeling bleak about the future of the United States’ relationship with the rest of the world, this will make you feel a little better. Go read.

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“You have to attack the source of your enemy’s strength. In America’s case, that’s not Osama or Saddam or anyone else. The enemy is ignorance. The only way to defeat it is to build relationships with these people, to draw them into the modern world with education and business. Otherwise, the fight will go on forever.”
– Brigadier General Bashir Baz, Three Cups of Tea
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Greg Mortenson at Wikipedia
Three Cups of Tea at Wikipedia
Central Asia Institute at Wikipedia
Three Cups of Tea homepage
gregmortenson.com
davidoliverrelin.com
Central Asia Institute homepage
Pennies for Peace


The Gion Festival at Wikipedia

 

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Filed under Afghanistan, David Relin, education, Greg Mortenson, Pakistan, peace

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