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« December, 2004 »
The Lost World

This book is the last in the “books I read on the plane” series and, as such, I wasn’t expecting much from it. After one book where the mystery is revealed about how there are still dinosaurs [or, there are new genetically engineered dinosaurs] living on a remote Costa Rican island, it’s hard to keep the secret much longer. Accordingly the storyline, which is thin to begin with, makes us take some serious leaps of faith as to why everyone doesn’t know about these dinos yet. They go back to the island, some people get eaten, some do not, and at the end of it all, there’s always room for another sequel.

The other major indicator that this book is merely going through the motions is the addition of two young kids -- sort of proteges of one of the scientists who is now reduced to teaching classes at the local high school -- who aren’t much to read about but probably look good on screen. They predictably stow away in one of the research containers and then become both liabilities and assets in the dino-eat-dino Lost World. I like Crichton’s writing and there’s usually enough science to keep me interested in otherwise thin plots, but this book really went over the edge and looks more like a fleshed out treatment for a movie and not a novel at all.

The Testament

It’s been more fun reading Grisham books on airplanes and vaction ever since he seemed to develop some sort of a conscience. His characters are still more often than not moneyed status- and brand-conscious high end pedigreed folk, but often there’s someone around who is not as well off. Often, also, this person turns out to be the moral conscience and sometimes their outlook is catching. In this way Grisham gets the best of both worlds. He still gets to talk money like it was going out of style -- what brands people wear, what high end cars, they drive, what private school they send their lids too -- but he can also eschew the value of such trappings by having positive characters who don’t care at all about that stuff. This book is, otherwise, a lot like his other ones. Rich guy dies leaving complicated will. Former fuckup lawyer gets saddled with picking up the pieces, learns a lesson, etc. No huge surprises, but a good read and it made my plane trip go much more quickly.


Another okay read from the “things to read on the plane” list. This one concerns antibiotic resitant bacterial infections, corrupt drug companies, and a do-gooder doctor who is trying to save patients in South Central Los Angeles, including his own daughter. This book is obviously well-researched and has a good point to make, namely that as drug companies don’t take responsibility for how their products are used, the drugs become misused leading to bad health problems and drug-resistant bacteria. However, too much of this message is explained in the form of mini-soliloquies by various characters and a lot of their exposition reads more like a term paper than any real way someone would talk. Add to that too many killings, too much inner city dialogue that rings false and not enough of a real plot and this book that was actually quite okay ceases to be better than that.

The Reader

This was a short but complicated book about a boy who falls in love with a much older woman who leaves his life only to reappear under very different circumstances when he is older. I usually avoid Oprah’s book club books like the plague but picked this one up because it was about reading. I was not disappointed. The book is quite short but packs a real punch. It manages to convey a lot of the strange and heady emotions involved with young love and also shows the main character growing and learning. This book was translated from the German and there is definitely something European to it, a different way of interacting between the characters, and some subtleties of language, to say nothing of the lack of general outfreakage about a 15 year old boy being seduced by an older woman.

Hell West and Crooked

This was my on-the-plane-over book which I wound up reading most of when I was actually in Australia. It’s a tale of a kid who decided to head out to the Australian Outback and become a cowboy of sorts and details just exactly what that entails. Along the way Tom Cole becomes a rancher, a hordebreaker, a cook and a buffalo hunter. He moves casually from job to job and often spends his pay at the bar and hotel and outfitters before his next job starts. It’s a fascinating look at what life was like when the Outback really was a rural frontier [this was in the 20’s and 30’s mainly] and there were no phones, or airplanes, or women practically. Many people escaped here and many others died through bad choices or plain old bad luck.

Some of the passages that Cole has written down from his journals can get a little dry at times, narrating how many cow they had, what they had for dinner, or who they saw on the trail, but it gives you an idea of the actual monotony that they faced out there. It’s hard to read about his racist treatment of the Indigenous people, his disregard for women and his general colonial approach to the resources of the Outback, the buffalo in particular which he slaughters mercilessly, takes the skins and often leaves the meat behind. On the other hand, his voice does come across as authentic, and he’s making no apologies for his behavior, just telling it more or less like it was. I don’t know how this book, which appeared to be printed in Melbourne, made its way into my bookbag here in the states, but I’m glad it did.

The Corrections

My sister has an ex-boyfriend who says Jonathan Franzen is a dick, but I don’t care. He’s an amazing writer. This semi-autobiographical novel about a guy with aging parents dealing with his own aimlessness and his father’s degenerative disease is rich with pathos, fine language and more nuance than you would expect. It resonated very strongly with me for another reason: Franzen’s Mom is my Mom. I had suspected this when I read his book of essays but I am even more sure now. This isn’t necessarily the most flattering thing to say about either of them, but it was uncanny. So much so that I kept wanting to put down the book and write Franzen a postcard and say “How did you know she does that?!” I read this book in basically one sitting on a cross-continental plane trip which was sort of a good way to keep up with all the characters. I don’t recommend that approach for just anyone, but worked well for me.

Everyone in the book is a little bit broken and a little bit redeeming which is really my favorite kind of set-up. It’s so easy to just have an evil character that drives all the negative energy towards them but all these people have on and off issues with all the other people which, at the end of it all, aren’t even resolved. Life is complicated and so are the stories and words in this book. Worth delving in to.

In A Sunburned Country

I rarely laugh out loud when I read, but this book had me giggling on public transportation. It was my first introduction to Bill Bryson and I carried the hardcover book all the way to Australia and back even though it was a library book. This book recounts a trip Bryson took to Australia before the Sydney Olympics. As he travels over on the plane it occurs to him that he has no idea of the Prime Minister’s name and uses this as a metaphor throughout the book about all the things we don’t know about Australia. That, and how many things here can kill you.

A lot of the things we don’t know about Australia, according to Bryson, are weird trivia bits. Australia has the only wild herd of single humped camels in the world. It also has penguins. An Australian Prime Minister once disappeared off the coast while swimming. His body was never found. Bryson goes overland to many places that many short-term visitors to Australia will only dream about. He drives out to Uluru and back in a day because he forgot to make hotel reservations in advance. He takes long drives into the desert and relates what he is seeing out the window at the same time as he is telling stories of people who wandered out into the Outback and died there. He talks about wildlife, sports, drinking with the locals and the weird little attractions that just barely make the pages of the tour guides. I felt, after reading this book, that I was coming to Australia with at least some advance knowledge of where I was going, and why people were there, which was very helpful.