[I've been
« 2009 »
Over the Next Hill: An Ethnography of RVing Seniors in North America

This book was recommended to me by someone on MetaFilter as a good book to read for people considering living in their vehicles. It’s a really great ethnographic study of people who live in their motorvehicles or who are otherwise part of the lifestyle of RVing. This ranges from people who live in 100K motorhomes to the people in pickup trucks with poptop trailers who go out bookdocking or sepnd the winters at The Slabs. I didn’t know much about the larger culture of RVers and this book has a good combination of a lot of interesting history while also having a lot of personal interviews and anecdotes by people who are actually living this way. The authors are Canadian so there’s more of a general North American look at this lifestyle [special considerations given to Canadian health care concerns for example] but I didn’t feel that this detracted at all from the useful information available to anyone living like this. Of particular interest was the descriptions of the various membership clubs available to RVers from Escapees to the Good Sam Club. The writing in this book is readabe and interesting though it’s obviously more of an academic work than just a reference tool. If you can find a copy, pick it up.

The Whole Five Feet

This book took me months to finish. I got a copy of it from the author and then, later, another copy from his publisher. Not sure what that was about. I wrote Chris an email to tell him that I’d finished his book, seemed like the decent thing to do, and since I’m terribly lazy about getting reviews up, I’ll paste some of it here. If you’re a bookish sort, you’d like this book....

“Hey I finally finished this!

...It was slow going at times because even though your story is... sort of narrative there are a lot of big ideas that are tied up in it and it’s not an airplane read -- both owing to it being hardbound but also because it’s worth attention.I’ve been going through my own family health stuff this year [not me personally] and the story of Mimi and her role in the family and the time you spent both with her and reminiscing about her and thinking about her were a particularly poingnant part of it for me.

I’d be lying if I said I read every excerpt or if I can even remember some of the earlier chapters [I started reading it about when you sent it to me] but my favorite parts were the parts where your personal life was sort of mirrored in what you were reading. Some of the Darwin stuff and the explorer guy before him who was in California [tempting to look it all up just to feel like I have some memory left :)]. I also liked the storied of your family’s place up north since I live in rural Vermont and that idea of a family homestead is one that is sort of foreign to me.

Also the subtext of class that goes all through it -- this is just my personal sociopolitical lens -- the arts and letters aspect, the Harvard aspect the club you could stay in in the UK because of some reciprocal arrangement with whatever club you and/or your family are associated with in New York, I liked how that sort of bounced off the original ideas ofhaving books that were for everyone... and how it seems in a lot of ways maybe that isn’t how they turned out...”

Genius Squad

A fun YA novel a lot like the one that came bafore it. A lot of scene setting, some intrepid “what’s going on stuff” a big scary chance and a nice resolution. I’m not sure if I will like the third installment of this book since the first two follow a fairly familiar narrative structure, but I enjoy the character of Cadel Piggot and I like listening to pretty much any author who can convincingly write about technology whether it’s being used by a band of savvy teens or something else. Jinks maintains my interest and I feel that I should check out more of what she’s written.

The Secret of Invisibility

I’ve been enjoying John Ralston’s comics online for years and was very pleased to see that he had come out with a young adult novel. I read this book back to front in a few days. It’s the story of an awkward boy who moves to a new town where he doesn’t know anybody and encounters a secret.... He also spends a lot of time at the library and meets a kid in town who enjoys doing the same things. The story rings true and is reminiscent of one of my favorite stories of all time Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars. There are neat little naming jokes and complementary illustrations throughout. It’s a good read, feels good in your hands and looks great.

The Shaker Image

There’s something about the Shakers that inspires almost an insta-nostalgia for me, some sort of road not taken. I grew up near Harvard MA, the site of one of the Shaker communities and remember learning about them when I was little. I’m not much into organized religion but I love their furniture and believe, sort of like they did, that there is attainable perfection in design. This book is full of photos of Shaker communities with stories about the people in them. The Shakers used to pretty much keeps themselves entirely separate from “the World” and at some point they decided to shift this approach somewhat. These photos are in some sense promotional materials and in some other sense sort of a glimpse into a world most of us know very little about. The research that has gone into this volume, from Pearson and his two co-authors, is impressive.

The Dark Room

Got this book for a dime at the Des Moines public library booksale. Didn’t have high hopes for it but it turned out to be quite a gripping read. Sort of a “who done it when you can’t remember what happened” story, this tale of a woman whose fiancee leaves her to marry another woman. The finacee is then found brutally murdered [along with the other woman] and the spurned woman attempts suicide, or does she? I thought it was going to be a shlocky sex-crime filled book but okay for the airplane and it wound up being a pretty inteersting twisting and turning crime novel.

Dangerous Laughter

The only thing I did not like about this collection of short stories is that I’m a pretty serious an of Millhauser already so I had already read a few of these stories when they were originally published. Thus the book went by too fast and I was left at the end of it sooner than I would hav eliked. Millhauster is an amazing master of several types of stories -- the meticulous explanatory stories, the teen coming-of-age Bradbury-esque stories, the almost-normal-but-not-quite stories -- and it’s always a joy to see what he comes up with. Starting a story of his I’m always wondering just how he’s going to manage to turn the idea on its head just a little bit and I’m always surprised and delighted. Fun book, wish it had been longer.

Isaac’s Storm

[review pending]

A Stranger in the Kingdom

I had read Mosher’s more recent book On Kingdom Mountain recently and really fell on love with the Vermonter vibe and the family of people and their neighbors who lived in the Northeast section of Vermont. As someone who, while maybe not a Vermonter, at least lives here, it’s fun to be able to notice neat little geographic locations and think “oh hey, I know where that is!” This story takes place in the 1950s whereas the one I read later actually takes place earlier. I recognized the location but sometimes had a hard time lining up the characters from one book to the next.

This book takes on the sticky topic of racism when a black preacher comes to town and a town normally pretty well unified -- except for the rift within the church -- splits up over a crime that happens within the town that some think implicates the new preacher. Mosher draws a lot of different characters with a lot of differing motivations and perspectives and all of this set against the lovely Vermont background and the aditional themes of baseball and old-time newspaper journalism made this a wonderful and rich read.

One Square Inch of Silence

Didn’t like this book. Didn’t finish it. I found that contrary to the other nature book I was reading at the time -- One Man’s Wilderness -- Hempton seemed to want the outdoors to be a specific way: quiet. While I appreciate and understand this goal, it seemed like he was perpetually fussy about any and all noises and at the same time drove a rattley VW bus around. I found his distractions at all the noises distracting to me as a reader and by the end of a few chapters was less interested in his campaign about noise and more interested in going outside myself. Neat idea, but didn’t like the book.

One Man’s Wilderness

[review pending]

The Millionaires

Better than I thought it would be, this financial thriller winds up taking what looks to be a typical good brother/bad brother tale and turning it into a fast-paced whodunit. Nothing fancy, but totally okay for reading on planes.

The Granta Book of Travel

This book probably took me the better part of a year or maybe even two to finish completely. It was not just a book about travel -- with some amazing long essays by a lot of writers you’ve heard of -- but it was my travel book, tosse dinto my backpack when I went places and did things. As such it was a great companion on a random bus ride or plane trip but was also often left behind when I’d be someplace more interesting than even a terrific travel book.

This book contains a number of very dissimilar essays about travel that are all lumped under the loose heading of -- essays written by people who were not at home. There are a few people searching for deposed dictators, Bill Bryson talking about being in and leaving the US, and a very poignant story by Christopher Hitchens who discusses entering Romania and going to Timisoara the day after the Ceasecus were assassinated which was personally quite interesting to me.

Evil Genius

This was a great long book for a bus ride and a vacation. This sotory is a YA novel about a weird young man who, from an early age, is nurtured into becoming an evil genius. He goes to evil genius school for a while, he meets a lot of wacky characters. He makes friends (sort of) and tries to muddle things out with a slowly expanding intellect. It’s a fun read with interesting characters and and plot that will mostly keep you entertained.

Incriminating Evidence

This was a decent book in one of those genres where you can’t remember the name of the book because all of the titles are more or less the same. This is one of a series about a married and then divorced but still sleeping together pair of lawyers who works out of San Francisco. My favorite thing about the book is the attention to San Francisco details. Since I know my way around some of the locations they are referring to, it was fun to get to visualize where they were talking about. This story was also detail-rich in other ways a lot of characters who are mostly decent complicated people -- i.e. very few two-dimensional villains -- and a plot that goes in and out and up and down. This story does have an internet aspect to it which is amusing since so much has changed since 2002 when it was written. Overall: liked it, didn’t love it, would probably read other books by this author if I were looking for a vacation/plane book again.

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much

Really mixed feelings about this one. The story itself is interesting. It’s actually about TWO men who love books, one is a rare book dealer and one is a rare book theif. The story concerns the times where their lives cross. The author has personal conversations with both of them, often, over many years. The dealer is more likeable (to me) than the thief, but the author seems sort of entranced with both of them. This is where the story sort of falls apart, to me. She’s so interested in getting the scoop from the thief that she gets into the classic reporter’s dilemma, knowing the guy is continuing to steal books and sort of shrugging in a “what can you do?” way

Personally I felt that she didn’t do more about the thief’s thievery because she knew she didn’t have a story if he went to jail and stayed there. The guy stole hundreds of credit card numbers that he used to purchase rare books from dealers sight unseen and then would have an accomplice go pick them up or sometimes go get the books himself. He left a trail of credit card fraud and ill will among rare book dealers (I was hoping for more about libraries, but there’s not much of that in this book). It was sort of neat to understand how he did this, but very frustrating to get to the end of the book and realize he was still doing it and seemed like he’d continue to do it. Maybe my frustration got in the way of me appreciating this book more. There is a lot of interesting side discussion with rare book dealers and the police, and a little about the books themselves. Upshot: the author injects herself into this story too much for my personal tastes and since I didn’t ultimately find her insights that interesting, I didn’t like the book as much as I might have.

Among the Thugs

This was a spooky little airplane read. Bill Buford is a journalism who becomes curious about what goes into football violence and follows teams of football hooligans -- or as he continually refers to them, “supporters -- to some matches and describes the violence he witnesses there. There’s an element of voyeurism, tagging along with him, similar to My War Gone By. Buford is simultaneously attracted to and repelled by the extreme and senseless violence that he witnesses at these matches. The book is more a set of described matches than it is a real cohesive narrative on the larger topics. Buford goes to matches, follows hooligans on package tours and attends a National Front birthday party. The whole time he’s sort of trying to integrate himself with the instigators of these events and is only partially successful.

This book is at its best when describing the things that happens and how they start and progress from simple organized cheering and assembly into the flashpoint violence where suddenly there is destruction and apalling behavior. I found Buford sort of an unreliable narrator, simultaneously trying to be a journalist with some level of detachment and also claiming to be horrified at seeing what was happening with the people who he was hanging out with. There was a sense in which I felt he was saying "well what can you do, this was going to happen anyhow” and then disavowing responsibility for the events because he was there reporting on them, while at the same time commenting on the media spectacle created. Worth reading, btu I’d really like an updated “where are we now, regarding hooligan violence?” book, preferably written by someone else.

Extreme Encounters

A likeable but sort of weird book about what it feels like to encounter near death experienecs, and sometimes die. It’s hard to explain. The author took a lot of scenarios [bear attack, shark bite] and write this book up as small chapters, in the second person, as if the event were happening to you. I found this to be a weird choice, personally, and it made the book a lot less awesome than I thought it would be. Sometimes the person ["you"] dies and sometimes not. Often the chapter ends with some sort of lulzy joke which I thought was a little stupid and not really in fitting with the “Hey I just died here!” setting. There’s a lot of good information and a decent bibliography otherwise, but I was left feeling like I wish someone else had written the same book.

The Youngest Science

[review pending]

The Food of a Younger Land

I was given a reader’s copy of this book by the publisher before its actual release date, fyi. That said, I loved this book and I’m not even a foodie. Kurlansky is someone who I know via his history books about the Basques and European Jewry. Apparently he’s also been a food writer for quite some time. He also makes decent woodcuts which this book is illustrated with. This book is a collection of food writing that was created for an ambitious WPA project called America Eats that was assembled, mostly, and never published. Kurlansky’s book both talks a lot about the project and also reproduces the essays, poems, stories and recipes from the files that have been languishing in the Library of Congress archives. Just the dscussion of poring through these files at LoC was enough to make my heart race. There is meta-discussion about the America Eats project and the WPA writers projects in general as well as some discussion about the individual regional food writing projects.

The fascinating part about reading these pieces is how much the world if food and eating has changed in the sixty-plus years since most of it was written. Regional differences in food and eating habits and food celebrations have been vanishing, supplanted by predictability and standardization. There is good news and bad news to what has changed, of course, but this book highlights the richness of regional food cultures in an almost poignant way. The fact that the book opened up with Vermont cuisine -- some of which is still around today like sugar-on-snow celebrations -- was probably the clincher for assuring I would read this book avidly from start to finish.

Deep Survival

This book also has a website. It’s really sort of three books in one 1. a memoir of a boy whose father fell out of the sky and survived and the boy’s lifelong fascination with that event 2) a rumination on the nature of survival with a lot of quotations from people you have heard of 3) true real life survivor tales, many of which you probably haven’t heard of, including some as recent as people in the WTC. I enjoyed two out of three of these books. I found some of the philosophical digressions a little bit prcious and they were usually jammed in-between the beginning and end of a story about someone’s against-the-odds survival when I was wondering whether they would live or die.

Gonzales' writing is also a little on the florid side which I found was also distracting from the sort of raw factual fascinatingness of the stories themselves. Not in a bad way exactly but just if I had been the guy’s editor I might have suggested a shorter book with a little less dictionary quotation and a little less Thoreau. In any case, it’s a gripping read and made me want to go get on the Google and figure out the longer stories of some of the people whose survival stories he recounts.

The Hard Work of Simple Living

“The only genuinely subversive thing you can do is have more fun than other people. So get to it!” -Bill McKibben

I enjoyed this little mostly blank book but thought it was going to be something else. I thought it was going to be meditations on simple living with some neat Koren illustrations. Instead it was a lot of reprinted New Yorker cartoons [and maybe some that were new, I’m not sure] with pullquotes form a lot of the books that Chelsea Green publishes. This was sort of neat since Chelsea Green is in my own backyard, but also a little not neat because there was just a lot of reprinted stuff which fit together nicely but made the whole book seem more like a marketing exercise and less of an awesome item in and of itself. Maybe my larger issue is that I’m not in love with Helen and Scott Nearing’s whole thing exactly and some of their quotations just sort of bugged me. In any case though it’s a book with a lot of blank space, and if it were yours and not borrowed from the library (as mine was) you could use it to write some of your own words.

The Thing Itself

[review pending]

On Kingdom Mountain

Best book I’ve read all year, a story of Old Vermont (1930’s) and the quirky folks who live in a small town in the Northeast Kingdom. This was one of those books that makes me wistful for a time and era I never really saw in Vermont in that sort of nostalgic way that people up here sometimes do. It tells the story of a woman who grew up on Kingdom Mountain. She’s a bit eccentric but isn’t everyone. One day a man in a biplane crash lands near her and she takes him home and the tale begins. He is looking for some lost treasure. She is sorting out family stuff and trying to fight the people who want to build a road over her mountain. The language and characters seem real and the pages turn easily. Recommended for anyone who has ever loved Vermont.

Life, Inc.

I read a pre-pub copy of this and I want to read it again. Rushkoff manages to explain a whole bunch of things about modern-day capitalism without resorting to too much “to the barricades!” talk and with lots of footnotes and additional explanations so that those who are really interested -- and I could myself among those -- can get more information about specific things. As someone who is personally uneasy with the way wealth seems to get generated and held on to in the US, particularly in light of all the recent recession-fueled misery, it’s nice to feel like at least the mechanisms are explicable, of unforgiveable, and that’s what Rushkoff does here.

I haven’t enjoyed a book about how things are falling apart since I read One Market Under God by Thomas Frank in 2003 where he talked about the not-nefarious-but-not-innocent forces that led middle class Americans to invest in a market that almost certainly did not have their best interests at heart. Rushkoff does his best to end on an up note, but all the while he’s explaining what is wrong with the system which does manage to read as a primer on how to NOT live. Good reading.

Pretty Monsters

This was the best book I’ve read on a plane in quite some time. Link has a handle on making stories mostly real but just a little unreal in a way that makes them compelling and just a little freaky. It ends on sort of a weird note which was my only little irritation in an otherwise terrific collection. She is great at dark slightly foreboding stories and she’s clearly so masterful at writing stories that she can now mess around with the form with great results. Even though this is technically a YA novel it’s good reading for people of any age.

The Klondike Quest: A Photographic Essay

A great collection of photos spanning 1897-1899 and the Klondike gold rush. They are at times interrupted by Berton’s somewhat overwrought re-telling of the story of what was going on as people left California to head north, up through Chilkoot pass and over to Dawson Alaska. I enjoyed the photos and it was nice to know what was going on, but Berton’s narration seemed way over the top and seemed to mostly be telling generalized stories without much explication of what was going on in the specific photographs. Nice as a collection of stories and photos, not as great as any sort of historical overview of what was going on at the time.

Jar of Fools

I had read this comic when it was serialized in The Stranger a long time ago and recently came across the graphic novel. It’s more fun to read this story in one sitting because a lot of the smaller vignettes are best understood as parts of the whole and you’re left feeling really bleak and terrible in small doses otherwise, or at least I was. This is a poignant story about a drunk magician trying to get over the suicide of his brother, with an ex-girlfriend he still loves and a mentor who is in and out of a rest home. He meets people who live under the bridge in a car - a confidence man and his daughter -- and they all try to muddle their way through life.

The illustrations and the plotline are totally excellent in this short novel; the palpable ennui is the perpetual extra character and the stark black and white drawings give the reader a real feeling of isolation and hopelessness. That said, the book has its strong and uplifting moments and this first installment ends on a cautious up note.

The Day Trader

This was a decent but unexceptional book about a guy who leaves his job to be a day trader when his wife who is about to divorce him gets killed. It’s sort of ploddingly written but the plot is compelling and complex and not so deep that it won’t be good for airplane travel.

Shutter Island

If I had known how this book was going to wrap up, I never would have spent time reading it.

The Fire

This was a long book that I read on and after a long plane ride. It’s not as good as Neville’s original book The Eight but pretty good nonetheless. This continues the story started in The Eight only we’re one generation further along and some of the players remain the same and some have shifted around. There are more puzzles, more characters and even more (it seemed to me) stories told from other perspectives in that old “and then he started his tale...” sort of way.

Not a big deal but I felt that the thread of this story was a bit more dismorphous, the tale was a little less understandable and the resolution maybe a little too pat. I liked meeting up with the characters again and getting to traipse all over the world with them. And, as always, I enjoy that many of the main characters are female so you could say this is a book that passes the Bechdel Test. That said it’s not all “I smite him with my heavenly yoni...” either, it’s just a neat thriller type mystery somethingorother that happens to have a lot of women in it.

The Book of Air and Shadows

There has got to be a name for these specific sort of Davinci Code type mysteries where there’s a historical asect, some hidden thing from long ago turns up and then there’s some sort of dash for the item with a lot of different people crossing and double-crossing in a race across continents to search for it. The item is, always, soemthing that could change the face of history. I like these sorts of books. I liked the Dan Brown books fine also. They’re genre mystery types of books, but they kept the pages turning and gave me something to read while flying and that’s all quite good

In fact, this book was better than most because while I felt like I was following the action pretty well, I still wasn’t sure I knew whodunit until the very last pages and I sort of cared. There are a bunch of likeable and unlikeable characters in the whole thing and they weave into and out of each other’s lives. Nothing got too heavy but the plot was continually interesting.

Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded

This book was exactly one plane ride to San Francisco long and perfect for that event. I find Winchester a little difficult to read, he’s free with the adjectives even when they don’t forward his story terrible, and he’s a little snooty sounding. This works out better with a book like this one than it did with The Professor and the Madman. Winchester also does some really serious research and his books are at their strongest when he’s revealing things that he knows, and less interesting when he’s either talking about himself or waxing poetic about a small part of the story when you’re waiting for him to get to the explosion already! I wrote down a ton of little notes of things to go look up when I was done reading and back to noodling around on the Internet and this book was great for things like that.

Legends of Caltech

This book is the first in a series of locally published volumes outlining first hand accounts of Caltech pranking. If all you’ve heard about is the Rose Bowl prank, you might enjoy reading a bit more about the day to day pranking going on at Caltech including the sweepstakes caper and the procedure known as room stacking where upperclassmen leave their rooms for Ditch Day and underclassmen try to break into them. This book covers the 1920’s through the 1980’s and is a good looking volume with a lot of personal accounts and photographs.

Into the Dream

William Sleator’s book House of Stairs was a particular favorite of mine as a YA novel and when I saw this book on a free pile at the local library, I figured I’d take it home and see what it was like. I enjoyed it. it was a super quick read wiht the basic premise being two kids who find out they’re having a nearly identical dream and one that fills them with a sense of urgency. They have to muddle out what it all means, together, and the two kids are sort of opposites. He’s from a brainy academic family, she’s from more like the wrong side of the tracks but only together can they figure out what’s going on, which they eventually do. The book is well-written and suspenseful and only a little scifi-ish.

Zero Option

I seem to only be reading St. Marten’s Press books this year. This book was on the share-a-book shelf at the hotel I was staying at and was a totally decent thriller-type read about a creepy chemical bioagent that disappears and the group of people -- Army FBI, random folks -- who have to try to get it back. It’s an interesting story with a lot of decent characters who all have a good news/bad news side to them and it was worth reading up until the end. I generally don’t read sort of political-military thrillers -- there was a lot of back and forth in this one about how the various federal agencies interact which sounds like snoresville but it was well done to my eyes -- but the last few I’ve picked up have been enjoyable.

A Gathering of Old Men

I found this book in a waiting room somewhere and it was on my shelves unread until I finally needed a small paperback to take on my trip. This book was great. It’s set in a post-sharecropper era in the South in a plantation town that is pretty much only occupied by elderly people who used to work on the plantation. There is some sort of altercation and one of the plantation owners is killed and there is a big to do about who will take the blame and for what reason. The old black men in town all assemble with their rifles, ready to say “I did it” in the face of what they are assuming is going to be violent opposition from the usual suspects. And that’s sort of what happens except the usual suspects are far from usual and there is a lot of change in the air and what happens isn’t quite what you expect.

Gaines' characters are interesting and full of complications and depth and the story is told in successive chapters by many different people, giving you somewhat differing perspectives, but not in the usual “who is telling the truth?” sort of way. I was pretty sure I wouldn’t enjoy the multiple perspectives but it turned out to make this story even more compelling than it would be otherwise, affording many differing views of the same day full of events.

The First Patient

This book came to me in the mail from the publisher for some reason and it was the perfect book for a long series of plane rides. The basic premise is that the President of the US’s doctor has left for “some reason” and the president taps his old buddy with a checkered past to be his personal physician as he’s gearing up for running for re-election. Pretty standard stuff, but it gets into nanotechnology and all sorts of weird blackmailish stuff, better than the average political tome and a lively read.

Second Wind

I’ve been really dragging on reading lately so I decided to read something I hadn’t read from an author I generally like. This was a good Dick Francis book because it wasn’t all about horses. I know that’s his thing but this one had more to do wtih meteorology and a few small Carribean Islands. It’s been a while since I picked up his stuff and I found this book interesting, a quick read and mysterious enough to keep me interested even with the brain fog that is the super short days here in New England.