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« February, 2005 »
I’m a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America After 20 Years Away

I’ve just been devouring Bryson’s books lately. This one is a compilation of columns that he wrote for a UK paper after returning to the US from 20 years abroad in the UK. He comes back to the country he grew up in and is charmingly confused by many of the ways in which US and UK cultures are different. He writes up these little observations in newspaper-column length and sends them overseas where they amuse British readers. This is easily one of the most readable of Bryson’s books, though sometimes that’s at the expense of some of his herculean trivia expositions. He talks about American customs and traditions like decorating the house for the holidays, arcane income tax hurdling and sending your kids far away to go to college.

The book is at its best when it details the weird little differences between US and UK culture and weakest when it’s just talking about the US because, well, I already know about the US. I am not this book’s intended audience at some level though I enjoy it just the same. The book drags when Bryson seems a bit too much like Dave Barry and goes with the “I’m just a dumb man and can’t button my own shirt” easy laugh. It’s still funny it’s just not as smart as Bryson usually presents himself. There are many pleasing reflections on New England life which, since Bryson lives about 30 miles from here, rang very true to me. As an interesting sidenote, he was writing these columns at about the same time as he was working on A Walk in the Woods, his story about walking the Appalachian Trail. As such, every now and again he’ll mention the writing of that book in this book. Since I am reading both of them at the same time, it adds a weird little jolt of recognition “hey, he was just talking about that trip in the other book!” that makes this short collection of essays seem even more relevant and current.

Derelict Days

I got an email about a month or two ago from a fellow radical library/reader type named Irv Thomas who had known Celeste West and company back in the day and had self-published a book about his decades of hitch-hiking. We arranged a book swap, mine for his, and I just now finished reading this one. It’s a wonderful exploration of what he learned while travelling in this fashion around mostly the Western US but also including a side trip to Europe.

If you’re not super-interested in hitch-hiker and traveler culture, as I am, you might find some of the recountings of when and where he got picked up and by whom and how far they took him to be a bit on the dry side. I really got into the interesting synchronicity of his trips and the people he met and the adventures that he had. The book is well written -- Thomas also has a rich and eclectic writing history ranging from Co-Evolution quarterly to his own zines Black Bart and Ripening Seasons -- and fun to pick through. Thomas teaches himself a lot about not being greedy [for a ride, for a deadline, for money] as well as taking each experience in his life, good and bad, as an experience to gain knowledge and hopefully wisdom. He’s got a positive take on things, a refreshing perspective and, judging from his manner and the photos of himself and his travels sprinkled through the book, a sunny outlook. In the library world we talk a lot about lifelong learning, Irv Thomas’s story is a wonderful example of going well off the beaten path and coming back with something to share for just about anyone.

Get a Life: You Don’t Need a Million to Retire Well

I don’t know what it is with me and retirement books. I’ve always been sort of semi-retired, but like many other people I think I have anxiety about having enough money when I’m older in a way I don’t have anxiety about having enough money now. Even though this book is put out by Nolo Press, it’s short on legal mumbo jumbo and really good at talking about more nebulous lifestyle issues like happiness and loneliness. Warner’s main thesis is that while it’s important to have money for your retirement, there are other things you need that are equally if not more important. These things are: your health, good family/friendship network, and interests and activities that get you in touch with other people from other age groups.

He takes these issues in turn and goes over things like how and why you might want to improve your health, how and why you should make sure you have people close to you, how and why you can and should find hobbies and other interests. Starting many of these projects can be done well before people reach retirement age and some of them, like staying fit, can be lifelong avocations and are better started early. Warner includes many testimonials from happy retirees who mostly talk about what they are doing in their post-work life, how they decided what to do, and how important money was to their sets of decisions. He’s not all sun-shiney, he also includes a few less-personal stories about seniors who had a hard time adjusting to retirement or who found it hard to make new friends or find new interests once they were already in their seventies.

This is not to say that the book is all feelgood talk about making friends and eating vegetables. There is also a lot of sound advice about finances, including how and when to save, and particularly what sorts of financial advantages you can get if you, for example, buy a three year old car instead of a brand new one, or if you pay an extra fifty dollars towards your mortgage every month. Warner knows that saving isn’t easy, but he’s also very clear that saving earlier and smarter is better than having to make tough choices about working later and later into your life when you’re less excited about it. His advice is sound and his approach is very people-centered in a way that you don’t find when you’re watching the ads for financial planning companies or listening to the advice of your banker.


I’m not sure how I missed Abel’s comics before. She’s a very tallented illustrator and has a knack for telling a story. This is a collection of her works which she calls “short stories” from 1989-1996. The only thing the book has in the way of commentary is the annotations on the chapter headings in the table of contents, along the lines of “this was the cover of suchandsuch magazine” There’s no introduction or notes otherwise. A lot of her pieces are actually short journalism bits, such as when she goes to a punk all-ages show at a bowling alley in Chicago and illustrates what she finds there. She has a good knack for storytelling, both in the journalistic vein and pieces that appear to live more solidly in the realm of fiction.

A Walk Across America

Peter Jenkins had a hard time figuring out what he wanted to do with his life, so he walked across America. His story is a recognizable one. Kid grows up with privilege in Greenwich Connecticut, goes to an artsy college, feels that something is missing from his life. After a failed college marriage, Peter decides to load up his backpack and see the world. He heads out with his dog and a contract of sorts from National Geographic and a determination to meet people, get jobs when he needs money, and go from coast to coast. Oddly, or perhaps not so oddly, the book ends when he finds religion and meets a woman [in that order] and ther New Orleans to Colorado stretch is summed up as an afterword.

Some parts of this book work great. Jenkins' descriptions of the scenery and the people he meets seem very real and geniune and are the most pleasant part of the book. However, when he starts getting philosophical, including one embarassing moment where he sees himself in the mirror as “black” after spending a few weeks with a black family in Appalachia that he starts to call “my black family", the book drags. The naievete that he has towards other peoples' ideas about him, the difficulties in finding a job in some of the poorest regions in the country, and some of the trials he has to endure, are hard to read through without wanting to shake him. On the other hand, some of his observations and feeligns turn out to be glaringly incorrect, as when he lands in Alabama and meets Governor Wallace who turns out to be an okay guy in person despite his persona and crappy politics.

Peter Jenkins is a seeker who seems to have some sort of trouble figuring out what things mean in his life. He places a lot of power in his dig, his "forever friend” and then later in God after one evening at a tent revival, and then finally in the woman he meets in the last pages of the book. I know a lot of people like Peter so this book has a familiar, if not always agreeable, storyline to it.

A Few Perfect Hours

This was a pretty short well-illustrated graphic novel that seems to fall into the iceberg problem. Josh and his then-girlfriend now-wife Sari, took a trip through Southeast Asia and Central Europe early on in their relationship that has achieved some sort of totemic importance to them now. When recalling it ten years later, they remember that the stories were interesting and important, but perhaps not how to make them that way to people who haven’t been living together with them for the past ten years. I felt after reading about their adventures and Sari’s prologue where she worries about the pointiness of her nose, that they were sort of weird American neurotic tourists who would have annoyed the hell out of me. It was only when I got to the back of the book and saw the smiley happy picture of the two of them that I realized this book is much more about relationship moments than telling their story to the outside world. With that taken care of, I began to feel much more warmth for the characters than I did while they were telling their stories.

Chance : a guide to gambling, love, the stock market and just about anything else

This was an otherwise inteersting book onthe nature of probabilities that was flawed in my opinion by too much math and not enough chatty anecdotes. The author is clearly a smart man who knows his stuff. Yet, a lot of times he would start explaining a phenomenon like the liklihood of finding two people in a room with the same birthday [whcih is over 50% if you have 23 or more people in the room, if I recall correctly] and then veer off into a complicated equation as an “answer” to is, assuming his readers are as facile with math as he is. This wasn’t a huge problem, but sometimes I’d really want to learn more about how a probability problem worked and find that in order to do that, I had to really start crunching some numbers. I’m even good at math but this was too much math for me in an otherwise sort of popular book. The appendix by Brad Johnson may easily be the most interesting part of the book in that it deals with gambling directly and has many more real-world exaples to draw from and much less math.

Fever Pitch

I mostly knew Nick Hornby from his book High Fidelity which I read after loving the movie. I thougth of him as a sort of reflective somewhat introverted type which was why I felt that I connected so well with his writing. Well, he’s not, he’s an addict, a football [in the US: soccer] addict. This book is a sort of autobiography through football games. Hornby outlines his increasing attachment to Arsenal, his one true love team, and along the way mentioned his relationships with his parents, friends and various girlfriends, as well as the game itself. Though I think it’s somewhat pathetic to be someone so attached to a game that you’d miss your best friends' wedding if it happened during a home game, Hornby ackowledges that this is a character flaw and tries to account for it, if not apologize for it. The writing is strongest when discussing the other parts of Hornby’s life and how he tries to wedge them in to a life already full of a football addiction. It’s least strong when he falls into the predictable play by play discussions of “really important” games and when he offers half-hearted explanations for football fan voilence and hooliganism in general.

Web Search Garage

I loved this book. I learned new things. Tara’s got some great ways of starting out each section with a general priciple and then explaining how to put this principle to use with specific search strategies. Though she’s widely known as the gal who co-wrote Google Hacks, this goes beyond Google and talks about other search engines as well as offers search strategies that aren’t engine specific. My only beef with this book is that the design/layout was sometimes a bit hard to read. The “garage” theme resulted in some header font choices that were less than legible and I sometimes had a difficult time figuring out why some URLs were displayed one way and some another. This is really a minor quibble and the book deserves a prestigious place on the desk of every librarian.

The Charming Idioms of New England

We have a weird collection of very old books kicking around in our library like this one. They seem to be written by graduates of Ivy League schools and demonstrate the authors superior erudition and wit rather than any true scholarship. This book was fun to read because some of the idioms are quite familiar and some are completely foreign. I have absolutely no confidence that the author is anything but a linguistic dilletante. That said, the sheer listings of the idioms he heard that he attributes to New Englanders is an amusing, if quick, read.