Wednesday, August 17, 2011

What I Read on My Summer Vacation

I read six and a half books during my 12 days in Bali, the half being the sci-fi anthology "Year's Best SF 16" purposely left for the flight home. This meant I had to pick up an extra, in this case from the guest shelf at Puri Nusa Bungalows on Lembongan--the choices, like the guests, were weighted well against English speakers, but I had little trouble deciding between Mario Puzo's "Last Don" and an intriguing Canadian yarn about small-town life.

Further, suffice it to say that you should read all the "YBSF" anthologies, particularly on airplanes, because a) they exhibit great trust in the infallibility of modern technologies, and even if they don't, you're well airborne before you get to that part of the story; and b) the beauty of anthologies in general, especially with screaming children in the next aisle, is that if you decide you don't like the story you're reading, you can simply flip ahead to the next story.

About the screaming child, a few notes: 1) the two year old directly across from me was angelic for seven hours, sleeping comfortably in Daddy's lap, or studying the In-flight Emergency booklet like it was a comic book--colored pictures, not many words; 2) one row behind was a very similar child who was unsettled by every bump and every strange noise, and didn't mind telling Mommy in no uncertain terms, at the top of his lungs. I wanted to hate that child, but I couldn't--he was only saying what I was feeling; 3) my flights were less than ideal, including night-time take-offs and landings, and coming back to ICN, a foul weather landing. On the outbound flight, turbulence was horrible, including a full one-second drop which caused half the adults to scream! I refrained, but only because I wanted to keep a stiff upper lip for the two elementary-aged French children sitting next to me. Still, those kids were sterling and caused no trouble, though the little chap fell asleep on my shoulder a bit later; 4) not because of that, but I couldn't wait for the flight to end. Okay, I can never wait for the flight to end. I hate flying. Well, not flying, but taking off and landing. And yes, I did compliment the French kids' Mom about how well the tadpoles behaved.

Anyway, this is supposed to be the book report post.

  • The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien - Probably the best fictional account ever done about the Vietnam War, the stories of O'Brien's platoon is riveting and real, but somehow lyrical. Chapter titles like "How to tell a true war story", "The man I killed", "Ambush" and "Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong" are sometimes as evocative as the tales they contain. The author takes his time to tell each episode, to get it right. Easily the best book I read this vacation, and for quite some time--cannot recommend it highly enough.

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  • Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon - In the last book of his I read, Chabon pretended the Jewish homeland was the tundra around Sitka, Alaska, instead of someplace in the Middle East. His subject matter in this book is just as odd: an effete Frankish apothecary and surgeon joins up with an outsize African warrior to help the foolish part with their money on the trade roads of 10th century eastern Europe. Almost against their will, they take up the cause of an exiled prince of the Khazar Empire. And, as you might figure from the cover art, elephants figure heavily in the tale. A slim volume and a quick read, but full of interesting characters, unexpected plot turns, and Chabon's rich prose.
  • A Boy of Good Breeding by Miriam Toews - The jacket blurb compares the world of this book to Garrison Keillor's Lake Woebegon, and to an extent that's true, but it would also be true of small town life as described by Lewis Grizzard. Anyway, the town, Algren, Canada, is indeed small, at 1500 people--so small it's in the running for a special visit from Canada's Prime Minister to the country's smallest town (a village is below 1500 population). There's nothing Algren's Mayor Hosea Funk want's more, especially since his mother's deathbed confession leads him to believe the PM is actually his unknown father, a mysterious young man in a black hat who seduced his eighteen-year-old mother at a village dance 52 years ago. Good stuff.
  • The Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster - Set before September 11, 2001, Follies is the story of a retired life-insurance salesman who is diagnosed with cancer and moves to Brooklyn to die. But events don't turn out as he planned, for he re-establishes contact with his long-lost favorite nephew, breaks off all ties with his ex-wife, falls in something like love with the mother of a neighborhood jewelry designer who is dubbed the BPM (Beautiful Perfect Mother) by the nephew, takes custody of his lively great-neice, and doesn't die. Along the way, a really good book happens.
  • Loser by Jerry Spinelli - Spinelli is the author of elementary school angst, and Loser is the tale of Douglas Dinkoff, an easy-going kid who is a lot like every other kid. Well, he raises his hand with the wrong answers in class, can't bounce a ball very well, and laughs till he cries when his teacher makes up the word "Jabip" to describe a faraway, unknown place. By fourth grade, other kids think of him as a loser, but he remains oblivious--and eventually proves them all wrong with a very un-loser-like act.
  • Nick of Time by Ted Bell - A young teen coming of age, a time travel machine invented by Leonardo da Vinci, adventure and derring-do, history-changing events; this is exactly the kind of juvenilia I like, but somehow this story did not gel for me. Nick McIver's family operates the lighthouse on the smallest of the Channel Isles in 1939, the eve of Hitler's invasion. Meanwhile, time-traveling pirate Billy Blood is after Nick at the same time his great-great-great-grandfather is fighting off Blood's pirate ship in 1825 to prevent him carrying news of a Spanish double-cross to Lord Nelson and the fleet in Portsmouth. Blood has previously kidnapped Lord Hawke's children (Hawke owns Castle Hawke on the south end of Nick's island) and meanwhile, Nick's sister Kate and Hawke's second-in-command (Hawke is secretly a high-up in the Royal Navy) have been captured by a German U-boat. It's too much: the coincidences pile too totteringly high for me, the plot holes gape too wide, but I must say the ending is ripping good fun...


George Bailey Sees The World! said...

Did you take a speed-reading course? And what do you do with all of your books after reading - exchange them at What the Book?

Tuttle said...

As to reading speed, I am not so fast, certainly under 1000 wpm for general fiction. Remember I'm reading for up to six hours a day or so--well, not at Ubud I'll grant you.

As to their fate, good question--I pass some on, but mostly so far I've just been letting them build up in the apatuh. Some day soon, I'll have to sort through and take a bunch to WTB ...