Posts from May 2017
May 14th, 2017
Our book today is a handy pocket-sized thing from semi-pro ex-pat Evan Rice, The Wayfarer’s Handbook: A Field Guide for the Independent Traveler, new in a pretty blue-lettered hardcover from Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers. Rice is a handsome young Baltimorean who early on in life discovered a deep passion for travel, and according to his book’s bio-note, he’s spent more than two years on the road, visiting 32 countries on six continents. In the pages of this little book (extra-sturdy, no dust jacket, clearly designed to be carried to the back of beyond and consulted liberally en route), Rice distills the practical wisdom he’s distilled from all that moving around, and from the interactions he’s had along the way with that peculiar sub-category of traveler that will be well-known to anybody who’s ever strayed for days or weeks from the well-lit tourist pathways of the world – the tumbleweed sub-category of Rice’s fellow semi-pro travelers, carrying their battered possessions and scuffed-but-reliable tech in sun-stained rucksacks, pausing in one place just long enough to work a bar job in order to restore funds, then scabbing up the cheapest gray-market plane or train tickets and moving on to the next place. Rice is clearly taken with his fellow vagabonds:
In seeking out these gems of nature and culture and unexpectedness, I also found a group of people who chose to experience life in a way that I didn’t know was possible. Independent travelers of all ages, who went to wondrous places for indeterminate amounts of time, driven by reasons that even they didn’t seem to understand. They were so effortless in their movements: relaxed but aware, self-reliant but blissfully aimless, improvising their own spontaneous paths through the world. And best of all, they were free. Truly, completely free, in a world that increasingly opposes that notion.
(They’re free from conventional 9-to-5 jobs, these blissfully aimless souls, but it should be noted that they’re not free from chemical addiction; they are, universally, roasting tobacco addicts)
But at the same time Rice seems well aware of the specific brand of sheep-dip these non-itineraried travelers often like to sling about, and he’s having none of it:
It has become increasingly fashionable among the backpacking set to romanticize the act of travel at the expense of others, to deride anyone less adventurous as “conformist” and in doing so subtly imbue oneself with some kind of enlightenment. This is a comforting but false superiority; to judge others based on your own goals is reductive and foolish.
The Wayfarer’s Handbook has no time for such snobbery (although “fashionable” hardly does justice to how ubiquitous that snobbery is – even on a weekend-trip dip into the Appalachian Trail’s more suburban locales, you’re sure to find a pod of backpackers who have nothing but disdain for people who don’t have eyeball-piercing body stench); instead, it’s packed with every last little detail of world-traveling that anybody would ever need to know – and plenty of stuff that nobody needs to know but that makes for entertaining reading even so. This little book is clearly intended to be a companion as well as a handbook, a source of interest and a conversation-starter for all those long, rattling train-rides our author likes so much.
Readers learn the different types of shipwreck, the ancient place-names of dozens of modern spots, the kinds of mirages, the taxonomies of various mythical beasts like the jackalope, and the best remedy for eating extra-spicey food (it’s not water – try honey or even chocolate instead). The pages are dotted with fun trivia about travel and great quotes from the vast literature of travel, and also with mottos Rice has snatched from the more sedentary world and applied to his vocation, such as a bit of instruction printed on a jar of Hellmann’s Mayonnaise: “Keep cool – but do not freeze.” Some of the items he relates will be jarring to his more stay-at-home readers, like finding the United States right alongside Uzbekistan and Iran under the heading “Enemies of the Internet” (“countries who engage in the most severe Internet censorship and surveillance”), but the ultimate effect is wonderfully mind-expanding. This is a book that will delight armchair travelers every bit as much as their more peripatetic brethren.
“The world has never been safer, easier, and cheaper to explore than it is right now,” Rice writes with the bouncing optimism that characterizes the whole book. When he does his duty and offers advice on what poor luckless travelers should do in the unfortunate event of disaster, he’s always eager to keep things in their proper perspective, reminding his readers that a little simple preparation goes a long way, reminding them of the value of a good hand-wash and a trusty roll of mosquito-netting, and, very reluctantly, giving some pointers for, say, a bear attack:
If the bear begins charging, remain still, stand your ground, and begin yelling. Most initial charges are bluffs and, regardless, attempting to run will likely have far worse consequences. If the bear makes contact or remains focused on you, clasp your hands on the back of your neck, lay facedown with your backpack on, and “play dead.” Most bear interactions with humans are defensive: they simply want to ensure you are not a threat to their cubs or food source. However, if the bear does not leave the area and begins attacking, immediately fight back with any weapons available while making as much noise as possible.
If a bear does “make contact,” I suspect readers won’t have any trouble with the “begin yelling” part – it’ll come naturally. But here’s hoping it won’t be necessary.
May 8th, 2017
Our book today is a treat for readers (you can tell by the cascade of poorly-drawn books on the front cover, I guess): My Life with Bob, subtitled “Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues,” and it’s written by the most powerful person in the world of books, Pamela Paul, the editor of the New York Times Book Review and the person who dictates all the books coverage for the Paper of Record. And as that subtitle indicates, the “Bob” in the title isn’t a person – it’s Paul’s “book of books,” the painstaking record she’s kept for decades of every book she’s ever read.
It’s an accumulation that’s in some ways more immediately satisfying, she points out, than a normal personal journal would be; “diaries contained all kinds of things I wanted to forget – unrequited crushes and falling-outs with friends and angsting over college admissions,” she writes. “Bob contains things I wanted to remember: what I was reading when all that happened.”
Paul has written about Bob before, but this kind of subject is almost by its very nature inexhaustible, particularly for somebody like Paul, who’s “engulfed” in books. And of course every reader is always pruriently curious about the books that make up every other reader’s life. But the real strength of My Life with Bob, the element that gives it such a strong, easy readability in its own right, consistently isn’t the copious book-talk that fills its pages – the “Bob” part. Rather, it’s the “life” part where Paul’s considerable storytelling gifts shine to best advantage. She might protest that diaries remember things she wants to forget, but it’s pretty clear from the stories here that she hasn’t forgotten much.
This is a chronicle of failed and sometimes mortifying relationships in her dating – and marrying – life, a chronicle of constantly trying to gain some purchase on other people, some quick and reliable understanding of them, from the books they read and the books they want other people to read. That communicative aspect of reading Paul understands well from feeling it herself many times:
Sometimes you fall so much in love with a book that you simply have to tell everyone, to spread the love and to explain the state you’re in. You read passages aloud to anyone who will listen. You wait with bated breath, watching for signs of appreciation, wanting that smile, that laugh, that nod of recognition. Please love this book too, you silently – and sometimes not so silently – urge. You become insistent, even messianic in your enthusiasm.
Her own messianism has met with uneven results over the years. She recounts stories of uncomprehending boyfriends (one of them watched her finish a book and snidely said, “Hurry up, go note it in Bob”), stories of trying to align her reading with her former husband’s (they split on Magic Mountain and Paul Johnson’s Modern Times), stories of re-entering the dating life and encountering men whose favorites betray some fundamental flaw in their nature, such as the “ridiculously handsome” Abe, whose love of George MacDonald Fraser’s “Flashman” books prompts her to savor the highly idiosyncratic joy of “hate-reading” a book:
There can certainly be a pleasure in hate reading. As with The Fountainhead, I have hated my way through several books to the last page, not always out of generosity to the writer. It’s a force of will. You will be read no matter how hard you make it. Some say reading hateful books feels like time wasted – and with so little time, so many books, why bother with the bad? But there’s something bracing about reading a book you despise, because loathing is usually mixed with other emotions – fear, perverse attraction, even occasional, complicated strains of sympathy. It’s one of many reasons I believe in negative reviews. It can be interesting when a book provokes animosity. But hate in and of itself is not a very interesting response to a book, and oh, how I hated Flashman.
My Life with Bob is generously stocked with bookish anecdotes like this, with favorite books of mine found wanting (I side firmly with the ridiculously handsome Abe on the merits of Flashman) and titles I consider ridiculous fluff sometimes granted serious consideration because they answered a particular need at a particular time – and all kinds of books in between. And Paul so skillfully braids her book-talk with her life-talk (I got the strong impression that most of her life-stories have been honed to perfection by frequent retelling) that The Book of Bob always and invitingly doubles as The Book of Pam. It’s hard to think of a more intuitive – or more honest – way to go about describing a life lived in books.
May 6th, 2017
Our book today is a bone-chilling monster story of the most intimate kind, a story about a monster who’s not only gargantuan and wantonly destructive but … kind of cute. The book is Rodzilla (new from Margaret McElderry Books, a division of Simon & Schuster), with words by Rob Sanders and pictures by Dan Santat, and it opens with the city of Megalopolis in turmoil: stomping through its streets, toppling its buildings, barfing and farting all over its innocent civilians, wobbling and drooling through its scenic parks is a towering monster known as Rodzilla.
The property damage might be typical of most monster stories, the panicked citizens and wide-eyed news commentators might be staples of the genre, but even so, there are strange differences about this particular disaster scenario. For instance, this monster never really stops smiling. And he’s got an adorable pug nose. And stubby fingers. And no teeth in his enormous grinning mouth. And how many city-stomping monsters wear a T-shirt that says “Totally Rod”?
Not that any of it seems to lessen his path of destruction. “Rodzilla has grabbed a taxi … and a bus,” we’re told. “He’s the mightiest creature to ever roam the streets. Residents can only stare at this chubby monstrosity. They gaze in horror at his toothless grin.”
Thankfully, not all Megalopolis citizens are quite so paralyzed with fear. Just as the monster’s rampage seems unstoppable, a young woman and man step forward to confront … their barfing, crying, laughing, waddling, playroom-destroying toddler, Rod – who’s a such a little monster!
It’s all utterly delightful. Elementary school teacher Rob Sanders has a fine ear for the relentless onslaught of melodrama that is the inner life of every toddler, and the illustrations by Caldecott-winning artist Dan Santat are warm and bright and full of antic motion. And despite the carnage and the mess and the toys scattered everywhere, the ending is happy – the monster is pacified. For now.
May 1st, 2017
Our book today is a new paperback original from Penguin, The Red Line, Walt Gragg’s debut novel, which tell the story – in pointillist, gripping detail – of a Russian surprise attack on Germany at the Czech border, an attack that starts with massive tank-companies abandoning their war games and advancing straight at the border defenses, an attack launched under cover of a serious blizzard, an attack authorized by the ruthless autocrat of Russia as the first step in a bid to conquer Germany – and beyond.
It’s never quite a reassuring thing when a novel of this kind immediately earns the description “prescient,” because it’s not like predicting the winning lottery ticket for yourself – it’s like predicting the losing lottery tickets for everybody else. Gragg seems comfortable with the concept, however. “Despite the fact that our relationship with Russia at the time appeared rosy, I had little doubt that given Russia’s history we would eventually find ourselves where we are today,” Gragg told Publisher’s Weekly in an interview. “So despite the fact that the book’s political scenario looks like it was written last week, its central core was actually put on paper more than 20 years ago.”
That “central core” isn’t quite exactly our current world political situation, but it’s close enough in the gist: Vladimir Putin’s successor, an even more absolutist dictator named Cheninko, has risen to power on the back of a revitalized Communist power-grab in Russia, and one of his most daring generals has devised a plan that will allow Russia to conquer all of Germany in under a week, the whole time double-talking the US and the UN until the whole thing is a fait accompli. When it comes to these broader-scope explanations of politics and international pressure, Gragg’s sheer enthusiasm can sometimes lead him astray into a king of vagueness that almost breaks the spell he’s weaving:
There’d always been that 20 percent in both the East and West who refused to accept the changes occurring at the end of the first Cold War. Instead of joining the new world order, they continued on with a policy of fear and suspicion. In the East, they seized the opportunity a struggling Russia created. A new hatred was born, stronger and more resolute than ever.
But on the small scale, the scale of individual military commanders on both sides, The Red Line downright crackles with energy – and an air of authenticity I presume comes from the author’s own military experience (service in Vietnam, including some time spent with Special Forces). For instance, in the novel’s intense opening segment, Sergeant First Class Robert Jensen observes that the Russians – still on war games as far as he can tell – have moved large groups of foot soldiers into support positions around their tanks … and draws the only possible conclusion:
For the briefest of instants, Jensen’s mind begged him to believe it was nothing more than another Russian ploy to test their American adversaries. Just that brazen general trying to see how his foe would react this time.
But the veteran platoon sergeant knew otherwise. Tanks and BMPs at the wire might be a test of wills. Moving dismounted infantry into position to support the armor, however, could mean only one thing. As much as he fought against it, there was just one conclusion he could reach – the Russians were preparing an attack.
The Red Line‘s action scenes are superbly done, and the whole thing is virtually all action scenes. I think it’s fairly certain that any 21st century reader flying through these pages will be pausing periodically to wish that they felt just a bit more fictional than they do. The author’s protestations about starting the novel 20 years ago notwithstanding, there’s scarcely a single detail in this terrific novel that doesn’t feel like it could be showing up in tomorrow’s news. And since Gragg does a resolutely thorough job describing the raw human cost involved at every stage of his version of World War III, readers are spared nothing at all. I finished The Red Line hoping two things with equally fervor: first, that the author writes a second book, and second, that the real-world version of his first one leaves anybody alive to read it.