Travel

Worth the whole month.

While I took my fiction reading vacation over the past month, I couldn't entirely neglect nonfiction (of course). Earlier I alluded to a nonfiction book that took me a month to read; the book in question was Suzanne Strempek Shea's Sundays in America: A Yearlong Road Trip In Search of Christian Faith.

Sundays It didn't take me a month to read because I didn't like it, or because it was hard to read. It took a month to read because for once I gave myself the luxury of simply slowly chipping away at a book--I read it three or five pages at a time, and yes, although this may be too much information, I read much of it in the bathroom.

It was perfect for that kind of reading. Shea did exactly what her subtitle promises; she spent a year going to different Christian religious services, and then wrote about each week in short chapters about five to ten pages long. She roamed all over the country to do so, although many of her experiences were based in her native New England. The result is a thoughtful, fascinating book, not only about religion, but also about a personal search for meaning (told from the perspective of someone who is primarily observing others' searches for meaning). As a Catholic who "had experienced a spiritual disconnect," she relates her memory of watching the outpouring of grief over the death of John Paul II, and wishes she could feel such passion about her religion and spirituality again. Hence, her quest to "to on a pilgrimage of sorts, tour a few other houses of worship, finally find out just what goes on in those churches I grew up forbidden to enter, and understand what makes for devotion to a religious community." (p. xi.)

She only chose various Christian denominations (she was particularly interested, as a Catholic, in those "banned" Protestant churches she'd heard more about during her childhood) to visit, and each of the chapters describing her experiences in Baptist, Quaker, Greek Orthodox, Episcopalian, Pentecostal (and many other faiths) is a fascinating window into new worlds. As is my habit, I stuck bookmarks in wherever I really enjoyed something or thought I might want to quote it; rather than trying to put any such quotes in context, I'll simply say that this book collected no fewer than seven bookmarks, which is pretty impressive.* My favorite chapters were the ones where she really felt at home, and I also enjoyed her chapters about several "megachurches" she attended, as she managed to be much less judgmental about Rick Warren and Joel Osteen than I would have been.

I wouldn't have minded a little longer conclusion, discussing a bit more how she felt after her year and what services particularly stayed with her, but that's a small quibble. If this isn't the subject matter for you, I can also recommend her earlier memoir, Shelf Life: Romance, Mystery, Drama, and Other Page-Turning Adventures from a Year in a Bookstore.

*It's always very satisfying to me to finish a book and see it still stuffed with bookmarks. I feel like I really got something accomplished.


Free beer!

Now there's a headline guaranteed to raise some interest.

Now, normally, you know I don't much care for shilling for books or advertisers or much of anything. But on rare occasions, the opportunity to shill for someone who does great work comes along, and I like to take those opportunities.

Beer So just a short post today to let you know that my friend Kevin Revolinski's updated Wisconsin's Best Beer Guide is now available! It's a lovely little travel book, listing breweries and brew pubs in Wisconsin, and with a handy little "history of beer" essay in the front that's way more readable than most of the front matter you typically find in guide books.

Each brewery entry contains business information (address, phone, web site, annual production), a list of staple and seasonal beers produced, tour information, the best time to visit, whether or not they serve food, directions, a short informational essay, and a list of other eating and drinking establishments within "stumbling distance." A lot of the breweries also participated in the book's "special offers": at the Great Dane Pub and Brewery in Madison, for example, all you have to do is show them the book (they'll sign it on a handy list in the back, meaning you've received your freebie) and you get a free 10 oz. beer!

It's a very handy reference guide (especially this week, when it's 88 degrees and sticky in Wisconsin, and nothing would be nicer than to hit a local brew pub for a cold brew), and Revolinski's writing style is a lot of fun. This bit of self-revelation comes in the Introduction:

"When I took on this project back in 2006, I didn't even like beer. I can already hear the collective gasp of horror, but let me explain: beer was social lubricant, something you sipped at with friends at a cookout, bought for the cute woman at the other end of the bar, or beer-bonged on occasion. I didn't even like the taste so much and--oh the humanity--often didn't even finish them. I killed many a houseplant at parties and have gotten hordes of bees drunk at picnics with the remains of a bottle of Something-or-Other Light." (p. 2.)

If you live near Madison, Wisconsin, consider coming out to buy a copy of the book and meet Revolinski at the Capital Brewery Bier Garten in Middleton on Friday night, July 16, from 4 to 7 p.m. He's a lot of fun and the Capital Brewery is a great place to sit around outside and enjoy a beer. For more information, please visit his web site at www.revtravel.com/wbg.html. (He's also the author of a ton of other great travel guides about the great state of Wisconsin, including the soon-to-be-available Insider's Guide to Madison, so if you're a local do check out his page.)


Kicking off the summer of Bryson.

When someone asked me about my summer reading plans this summer, I must admit I was stymied. Without kids and with a freelance job that tends to be somewhat constant year-round, and not liking to travel during the summer when everyone else is traveling, I never ever think of summer as its own reading season. I also am not a fan of either a. beaches, or b. beach reads (which seem mainly to be "women's fiction" novels or thrillers, neither of which are my cuppa), so "summer reading" wasn't something I had thought about at all.

But then I did think about it, and thought there might be a couple of goals I could have for the summer. After reading and enjoying Bill Bryson's Notes from a Small Island, I thought maybe I'd work my way through the rest of his books (or at least the travel ones--he's also written books about the English language, but I don't know if I need to be that dedicated about it). I'm also thinking this should be the summer when I finally, finally read Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry (which is periodically recommended to me by one of my very favorite librarians), or perhaps even Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind. I have always wanted to know if Rhett was as dishy, and Scarlett as annoying, as they are in the movie.

Continent But I decided to ease myself into things with Bryson's American travelogue, The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America. Now, I just didn't love this one the way I loved Notes from a Small Island or In a Sunburned Country, but I did finish it, and I've got quite a few bookmarks stuck in it, so I at least enjoyed many parts of it. In this travelogue, first published in 1989, Bryson visited his homeland of the United States (he was then living in Great Britain with his wife and family), and drove around most of it, writing about his experiences as he went, and engaging in nostalgia for the road trips of his youth, organized and run with a frugal hand by his father.

I don't know if Bryson has mellowed with age, but I found him a little more abrasive in this narrative, and the tone, to me, seemed a bit uneven: you could never tell whether he was going to love a place or activity, and even when he was enjoying himself it seemed like a grudging "well, that wasn't a bad time, considering how lousy this whole trip has been" way. Because he was in America, of course, a lot of his time was also spent driving and exploring American historical spots (colonial Williamsburg, the Gettysburg battleground, etc.) and since I am completely bored and annoyed by driving (preferring to travel near big urban centers where we can almost exclusively ride trains or other public transportation) and was never all that interested in American history, I fear much of the charm of this volume was lost on me.

But that doesn't mean there weren't moments. I LOVED his description of Franklin Roosevelt's Georgian retreat, Warm Springs:

"I drove out to the Little White House, about two miles outside town. The parking lot was almost empty, except for an old bus from which a load of senior citizens were disembarking. The bus was from the Calvary Baptist Church in some place like Firecracker, Georgia, or Bareassed, Alabama. The old people were noisy and excited, like schoolchildren, and pushed in front of me at the ticket booth, little realizing that I wouldn't hesitate to give an old person a shove, especially a Baptist. Why is it, I wondered, that old people are always so self-centered and excitable? But I just smiled benignly and stood back, comforted by the thought that soon they would be dead." (p. 75.)

Okay, in all fairness, that's a description of old people, not Warm Springs. But HERE is a further description of Warm Springs that I also enjoyed:

"In every room there was a short taped commentary, which explained how Roosevelt worked and underwent therapy at the cottage. What it didn't tell you was that what he really came here for was a bit of rustic bonking with his secretary, Lucy Mercer. Her bedroom was on one side of the living room and his was on the other. The taped recording made nothing of this, but it did point out that Eleanor's bedroom, tucked away at the back and decidedly inferior to the secretary's, was mostly used as a guest room because Eleanor seldom made the trip south." (p. 77.)

Now THAT is American history. If my school textbooks had been a bit more honest about things like that, I might have actually been interested in American history. I look forward to continuing the Summer of Bryson!


Becoming a Bryson fan.

I have to own up to it: I'm becoming a Bill Bryson fan.

Bryson I really, really enjoyed his book that we read for the last menage, In a Sunburned Country (about Australia). So then, because I love all things British, I thought I would try his earlier travelogue, Notes from a Small Island: An Affectionate Portrait of Britain. And I really, really enjoyed it, too.

This took me a bit by surprise, as the last book I read by Bryson was A Walk inthe Woods, and although I enjoyed that when I read it, I wasn't in a big hurry to read any more of his travel books. Then I read parts of two of his more recent non-travel titles, A Short History of Nearly Everything, and a memoir titled The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid. And neither of those books did anything for me.

But now? Either I'm aging into an appreciation for him or I'm just on a lucky streak with his books. In Notes from a Small Island, he travels (rather aimlessly, he'll be the first to admit) around Great Britain to "say goodbye": he and his family had lived there for 20 years, and they were undertaking a move to America after he completed his travels. The result is a somewhat disorganized but often very humorous ramble around the country, full of trademark Bryson observances like:

"Farther on along the front there stood a clutch of guesthouses, large and virtually indistinguishable, and a few of them had vacancy signs perched in their windows. I had eight or ten to choose from, which always puts me in a mild fret because I have an unerring instinct for choosing badly. My wife can survey a row of guesthouses and instantly identify the one run by a white-haired widow with a kindly disposition and a fondness for children, snowy sheets, and sparkling bathroom porcelain, whereas I can generally count on choosing the one run by a guy with a grasping manner, a drooping fag [cigarette], and the sort of cough that makes you wonder where he puts the phlegm." (p. 221.)

The book isn't perfect--at times Bryson switches back and forth between describing experiences he had when first in Britain in the early 1970s and the experiences he's having on his goodbye tour, and periodically it's hard to figure out which period he's talking about. As it was published in 1995, it's also a bit dated (I'd love to read a newer version, and hear what he thinks about trains and the Brits now). But all in all it was a good light read, perfectly distracting and often very funny. And I was struck once again by the desire to travel with him--does anything sound nicer right now than wandering around England, largely by rail, and stopping often for meals, walks, and coffees? Not really. But I will have to make do with getting another one of his travelogues--perhaps the volume of stories about his return to America, titled I'm a Stranger Here Myself.

Have a great weekend, all, and I hope you get to spend some time with some great and distracting books of your own.


Back on the Elizabeth Gilbert train.

I don't have much else to say about Elizabeth Gilbert's new book Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage, other than that I enjoyed it.

Committed Gilbert is best known for the smashing popularity of her last book (which was also an Oprah choice), Eat, Pray, Love. I read that book before the hype machine blew it all out of proportion, and I liked it okay (particularly the part where she ate her way through Italy; the second parts of the book, praying and loving, in India and Indonesia, didn't do a whole lot for me). Then, when women started hailing it as the most influential book for them outside maybe the Bible, I started getting a bit annoyed. Sure, it was an okay read. But to take as your inspirational text a book about a woman who starts over after a traumatic divorce by traveling and writing about it (and had the luxury of doing so)? Meh. I just didn't get that aspect of it, and I'll admit I was doubly annoyed when...***SPOILER ALERT***

the book seemingly found Gilbert coming full circle only to--you guessed it--fall in love with another man. ***END SPOILER ALERT.***

There's nothing wrong with love. There's nothing wrong with men.* I just thought it was rather funny that a book millions hailed as being about "finding yourself" actually had quite a bit to do with "finding someone else." But hey, Gilbert is a good writer, and for many years she was a working writer before she hit paydirt, so her windfall seemed more well-deserved than many in the writing world.**

So I was looking forward to reading Committed (for whatever reason, I always find nonfiction about marriages fascinating), and I was not disappointed. Although the overall arc of the narrative is Gilbert's and her partner's efforts to jump through the necessary hoops to get married and supply him with a more permanent home in America (the man she would eventually marry, Felipe, was Brazilian, and had spent many years traveling between Australia and America), Gilbert also returns to her more reportorial roots and provides some research on different topics in marriage: how it typically works out for women; what it does to one's autonomy; its history, etc. I really enjoyed learning all of that stuff, although I'll admit that a large part of Gilbert's charm is still her personal take on subjects:

"Reality exits the stage the moment that infatuation enters, and we might soon find ourselves doing all sorts of crazy things that we would never have considered doing in a sane state...When the dust has settled years later, we might ask ourselves, 'What was I thinking?' and the answer is usually: You weren't.

Psychologists call that state of deluded madness 'narcissistic love.'

I call it 'my twenties.'" (p. 102.)

So there you have it. I like her. I liked this book. It moved right along, I got a few chuckles, and it certainly didn't make me any dumber. And yes, I'm thinking of making those three things my sole criteria for "nonfiction books I enjoy."

*Actually, my favorite book of Gilbert's remains the one she wrote about a very particular man, titled The Last American Man. Frankly, it may seem wrong to say this, but I think she's a stronger writer when she's writing about men.

**Thomas Friedman, James Patterson, I'm looking at you.


For now, I have to enjoy New York City in pictures.

If I was independently wealthy, I would go to New York City at least once a year. Alas, I am not. So retirement and annual visits to my favorite city in the world will have to wait.

Neighborhoods Until such time as I hit the lottery, I am lucky that other writers and photographers seem to enjoy New York City as well, and that books such as New York: The Big City and Its Little Neighborhoods exist. This is a large-format illustrated book about neighborhoods in the city's boroughs, including Brooklyn's "Little Beirut," the Bronx's "Little Ireland," Manhattan's Chinatown, Queens's "Little Egypt," and "Little Sri Lanka" on State Island (among many others). The author, Naomi Fertitta, grew up in Queens, but moved to Manhattan after college and very rarely left it, until she developed an interest in the city's other boroughs and neighborhoods. The result of that interest is this book.

Each neighborhood chapter includes a 2- or 3-page description, a list of places to visit, and at which to eat and shop, and a number of beautiful photographs. I enjoyed this book very much, but I'll admit I would have enjoyed it more if the photos had included captions. But I really enjoy reading photo captions.* If knowing what you're looking at isn't as important to you, then you won't have any complaints about this book.

*I don't remember for sure, but I'm pretty certain another favorite New York picture book of mine, Steven Jenkins's The Food Life: Inside the World of Food with the Grocer Extraordinaire at Fairway, included photo captions.


Book Menage Day 5: The Wrap-up.

Well, and here it is Friday already. Don't you sometimes wish we could all get together after these Menages, and have some afternoon coffee and cake, and REALLY get into discussing these books? I do. I'm trying to tell myself that's what retirement's going to be like--I don't care how poor I am, when I am old I am instituting an afternoon coffee or tea and cake ritual.

But until such time as my cake or retirement dreams come true, I must say this has been a bang-up Menage. Thank you once again to everyone who participated; your comments, of course, are what make the Menages so fun. Anyone got any ideas for the next one?

Just the one question today, and it's another one you know I like to ask:

1. If you could ask these authors one question about their books, what would you ask?

If and when I get my laptop back from the laptop sleep-away camp that is the repair shop, I will try to contact these authors with some of our questions and see if we can get any replies. Until then, please think good thoughts for my poor beleagured laptop; I know it's small potatoes on the scale of problems but man, it's disruptive (and don't forget expensive) to have your computer gone.


Book Menage Day 4: All together now.

And here we are already at day 4 of what has been, if I may say so myself, a very congenial Travel Book Menage. For these last two days of the week we'll just consider a few last questions and do a brief wrap-up. And please do forgive me for not adding pictures or links (to Horwitz's Blue Latitudes or Bryson's In a Sunburned Country) to this post; that information can all be found on previous menage day postings (and I'm getting increasingly lazy as Friday approaches).

So you know at least one of the questions I have to ask:

1. Which book did you like better? Why? Did you dislike either of the books? Why?

And number 2 is related, sort of:

2. Will you read any other books by these authors?

Number 3 is a bit of a broader question, if you're feeling philosophical today.

3. What do you think is the overall "appeal" of travel books for readers?


Travel Book Menage Day 3: Exclusively Bryson.

Hi! And welcome to Day 3 of our Travel Book Menage. Yesterday we looked exclusively at the Horwitz title, so today we'll consider Bill Bryson's In a Sunburned Country before we consider the two together again for the rest of the week.

I must say, I really enjoyed the Bryson in a way that I didn't enjoy the Horwitz. I suspect I was just in the mood for something a little lighter while I read the two of them, and the Bryson book better fit that bill. A good reminder that, as always, mood sometimes plays a greater role in reading choice and enjoyment than we realize.

But I digress. Today's questions:

1. What was your favorite part (or region) of this book, or least favorite? Did any of Bryson's stories stand out in particular to you?

2. What do you think makes Bryson so popular as a travel writer?

3. Did you read an edition of this book with or without the appendix of Bryson's articles on the Sydney Olympics? Did you read the appendix, and what did you think about its inclusion?

As always, please feel free to pose questions of your own in the comments.


Travel Book Menage Day 2: Exclusively Horwitz.

And welcome to Day 2 of our Travel Book Menage! Yesterday started off with a bang, with great comments and discussion, so thank you for all of that.

Blue As per usual, I thought we could take a day discussing each of these books separately. Today's book is Tony Horiwtiz's Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before. My questions are below; as always, answer as few or as many as you'd like, or feel free to ask some new questions of your own!

1. If you had to classify this book in one nonfiction "genre," what genre would you pick? Or what new genre would you make up for it?

2. Which geographic area/segment of the book did you most enjoy? Least enjoy?

and

3. Do you think Horwitz did a good job of describing the "real" Captain Cook?

Okay, have at. And thanks again for joining in--the Menage was just what I needed this week.


Travel Book Menage: Day One!

Bryson Hi, and welcome to another edition of our Book Menage--this time, a specially themed "Travel Menage"! The two books we were reading for the week, if you'll remember, are Bill Bryson's In a Sunburned Country and Tony Horwitz's Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before.

You know how this works. Each day I'll ask a couple of questions, and we'll discuss in the comments (you don't have to answer both questions if you don't want to; answering one is always fine). As always, don't be afraid to ask questions of your own--they can always be incorporated into the next day's discussion. Please do remember to invite your friends--everyone who participates in the comments has their names entered into a drawing to win the two books of the next Menage absolutely free!

So, for today:

1. Which of these two books did you read first, and why?

and

2. Are you less interested or more interested in Australia and/or the South Pacific than you were before you read these books?


You'll never look at shampoo the same way.

If you buy stuff (and we all do), you should read Paul Midler's book Poorly Made in China: An Insider's Account of the Tactics Behind China's Production Game.

China Midler lived and worked in China for many years (in the manufacturing city of Guangzhou) as a sort of facilitator for global companies hoping to have their products manufactured, cheaply of course, in China. Speaking the language and understanding the culture a bit more than did many of the executives he helped, who often flew in for just a few days for brief factory tours and meetings, he was perfectly placed to someday write a tell-all from both sides of the story. And so he has.

The book's not perfect. The prose is a bit clunky, and it starts a bit slow. But all in all I'd put it right up there with John Bowe's Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the Global Economy as one of the biggest perspective-changers I've ever read (I also listed it as a best Business Book of 2009--The Economist liked it too so I felt I was in good company). What's surprising is not learning about all the way that Chinese manufacturers cut corners and save costs to help their bottom lines (Midler works extensively with an American soap and shampoo company manufacturing in China; hence, the title of this post) but how they view their business practices, and how, eventually, people who want cheap crap (yeah, that would be everybody) won't always be in the role of being able to dictate what we want and how we want it. I wouldn't say this narrative is frightening, but it's definitely unsettling.

Libraries won't own enough copies of this one to be able to hold a book group about it, but they should. But whether or not anyone would have the heart to discuss it after reading it, I don't know. Either way: take a closer look at all your stuff, think about what you paid for it, and ask yourself if it would still be such a bargain if you'd had to buy it in a three- or four-dollar store, rather than a one-dollar store. There should be interesting days ahead.


Book Menage Travel Edition: It's a go!

Sunburned Okay! The votes are in, and the two books for our next Menage discussion are going to be:

1. Tony Horwitz's Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going where Captain Cook Has Gone Before;

and

2. Bill Bryson's In a Sunburned Country.

Thanks to everyone who voted, and I'll be contacting the winner of the two books (drawn from among the participants of the last Menage) a bit later. Why don't we be optimistic and plan to start the discussion on Monday, April 5? Please do invite your friends or consider posting a link to this page on your blogs--the more the merrier!

In other news this morning I'm very excited to have my article about the Best Business Books of 2009 posted at the Library Journal BookSmack! page. (The print article will appear in the March 15 edition of Library Journal.) We had a little more fun with the list this time around--the titles at the end of the article were particularly fun to write up. Please do check it out; it was a rather lively round of business books this year. Of course, most of them were about the continuing financial crisis, and so were depressing as hell, but they were interesting.


Loving Stephen Fry wherever he is.

Normally I don't have a lot of time for travel books written about the United States. But every so often I like to make an exception--particularly so when the author of such a book is British.

Fry Stephen Fry (better known to American audiences for his role as Jeeves in the BBC series Jeeves and Wooster, or for his appearances on Blackadder) set out to set foot in every one of America's fifty states, and to learn a little something about what makes each of them unique. My next research task is to track down the television series he made (on which this book, Stephen Fry in America, is based), but even if I don't find it, I've already enjoyed the book immensely.

Be prepared: although Fry seems quite fond of America and Americans, there are times when he won't pull any punches. For instance, when he spent some time in Oregon camping out with a man who firmly believes in the Sasquatch legend, this is what he had to say: "I have to spend hours camping out with Matt, listening to completely unconvincing stories of Bigfoot sightings, accompanied by weird and inappropriately tearful mentions of his wife and children. His particular blend of aggressive family sentimentality*, macho gun-toting and childish superstition is not something I find it easy to respect or like." (p. 284.)

Now that's a bit churlish. But I love churlish. I think the churl is what lends more weight to Fry's many other kind words about the majority of the states and their residents. And, of course, as Fry said I would in his introduction ("human nature, after all, dictates that you turn straight to the entry in this book that covers your own state..."), I went right for the chapter on Wisconsin and was proud to learn that he thinks that we, in contrast to the rest of the U.S., really get cheese. I'll take that.

It's a fun read, with beautiful pictures. Do check it out.

*I totally love this phrase, as aggression and sentimentality are two of my least favorite personality traits.


What exactly are people loving about this book?

I was completely annoyed by Greg Mortenson's Three Cups of Tea. A little background:

Tea I kind of knew I was going to be annoyed by this book. I've avoided reading it for years, even though it was a big crowd-pleaser when I worked at the library, and I can't recall that I've ever read a bad review of it. As noted earlier this week, I am one of those nasty people who often dislikes the crowd pleasers, so I thought I'd save us all some time and skip it. But then my dad asked for it, as a neighbor had told him to read it, and he wanted to know what I thought of it, so I had to explain to him why I hadn't read it.* Then, because he was going to read it, I thought I might as well listen to it on CD and then we could at least chat it over when we were done.

But it's not going to happen. I have listened to six CDs (of an 11-CD set) and I can't listen to any more. The subject matter is fine: Mortenson tried to climb K2 in Pakistan in tribute to his sister, who died at too young an age; failed in his attempt because he rescued someone else; was assisted in his descent by some of the Pakistani locals; and was so touched by their generosity and their stoic acceptance of their harsh environment that he pledged to return and build a school for their community. Which he did, and then did in other communities. I'm bailing out of this narrative right after he got a bridge built in Pakistan (he had to build that before he could build the school) and married his soulmate, so I'm going to have to live without knowing what happened with all the other schools.**

So what is the problem(s)? Well, for me, they are, in no particular order:

1. A large part of the first chunk of the book describes Mortenson's climbing exploits. I do not like mountain climbers. Just thinking about them (not all of them, but enough) leaving their spent tanks of oxygen all over the worlds' mountains annoys me.

2. Mortenson seems to have a bit more self esteem than I enjoy in a person. He introduces himself to some Pakistani children as "Greg" and "good." Who does that? I'd quibble less with the word "friendly," and sure, maybe I'm being overly picky, but the fact remains that I like people with a little more doubt in their soul. ("Citizen Reader. Hopefully good, but, you know, given the right circumstances, I'll bet I could do some pretty petty and/or scary shit.")

3. When he meets his soulmate and future wife, they go back to her apartment together, where she tells him "Welcome to my life," and he tells her "Welcome to my heart." At that point I snorted with laughter, said to the dishes I was doing, "Who are these people?", and then turned off the CD.

Please note: I am not against inspiring personal stories or philanthropists in general. It's just that there are many better books out there about people trying to make the world a better place: Tracy Kidder's Mountains Beyond Mountains, for one, and Melissa Faye Greene's There Is No Me Without You for another.

*Trying to explain to your father that you're a bitter and snobby person is always just a bit awkward.

**I'm pretty sure I can live without knowing.


Rick Steves, bad boy?

Normally I think Rick Steves is the most boring travel writer/presenter on the planet. I often watch his shows on PBS because I like travel shows, and because every time Mr. CR and I see his "Back Door" productions logo, we giggle, because we are immature. But if I want witty travel talk, I watch Burt Wolf.*

Politicalact So I was pleasantly surprised by Steves's new travel narrative, titled Travel as a Political Act. Although Steves makes his living writing straightforward tour guides and running tours, this is more of a thoughtful book on travel, explaining how the cultures of other parts of the world differ from our culture in America. He strikes a nice balance; he's unabashed about saying he loves being American,** and he's actually thankful to be operating his small business in America, but he's also generous about pointing out how other cultures may have figured out different and very valid lifestyles; in Denmark, for example, residents pay much higher taxes but are also highly content with the health care, education, and other services their government provides. He also describes a number of Islamic countries, including Turkey, Iran, and Morocco, and is particularly interested that Morocco seems to be prospering while largely ignoring America and its cultural mandates (he found that Tangier had three languages on all of their street signs: Arabic, French, and Spanish). I also liked his idea, stated in his concluding chapter, that the "ultimate souvenir is a broader outlook."

But perhaps my favorite part of this book was reading about Europe's different approaches to drug use and their emphasis on "harm reduction," particularly where hard drugs (like heroin) are concerned. By pointing out that other first-world nations can and indeed do function, even in countries where you can go to "coffeeshops" to smoke marijuana, I think Steves is providing some valuable insight. I was also just tickled to find out that he is a former board member of NORML and sometimes speaks to groups in America about Europe's approach to drug laws and enforcement. Rick Steves, bad boy. Who knew?

*I have a huge crush on Burt, which disturbs Mr. CR.

**Steves's patriotism doesn't particularly bother me, as he seems to have developed it by learning about other cultures and giving it some independent thought, which is not a typical hallmark of patriotism (or so I've found).


Better reading about it than visiting.

I don't read a lot of travel books, unless they're by British humorist Tony Hawks, in which case I am required to. But other than that? They don't usually appeal. Travel is the one thing, weirdly, that I prefer to do rather than reading about it. (Although I am not a very good traveler; I'm the person next to you in the airport fidgeting, pacing, and generally making herself sick about possible missed connections and oversold planes.)

City

But have you seen the Crown Journey series? I love these books. They're slim little nonfiction titles written about various locations by authors who have a history with or knowledge of the location. Ray Blount Jr. wrote Feet on the Street, about New Orleans; Chuck Palahniuk wrote Fugitives and Refugees, about Portland, Oregon. The book in the series that I've been listening to this week is Alex Kotlowitz's Never a City so Real, about Chicago. And, although Chicago is my least favorite big city (that I've seen, anyway--no offense, Chicagoans), I'm finding the book very interesting.*

Kotlowitz is an investigative (some might call it journalistic; I call it investigative) author whose earlier books are There Are No Children Here** and The Other Side of the River, which are both fantastic reads about sad topics (poverty and children in the projects in the former; an ugly crime and racial disparity in the latter). And he brings a clear-sighted but still sympathetic feeling to this book, describing Chicago as a city of contrasts and home to many distinct personalities, including the author Nelson Algren, labor leader Ed Sadlowski, and mural painter Milton Reed. It's a thoughtful, vividly descriptive, and short book on a big city, and it made me feel much more warmly about Chicago than any of my trips there have. I'd highly recommend it.

*Sorry, no quotes today. When I listen to this book, I'm usually up to my elbows in dirty dishes, and don't want to take the time to write anything down.

**No kidding: this is one of the best books I've ever read.


Helene does it again.

After struggling through Lorrie Moore's A Gate at the Stairs this weekend, I decided I deserved a little treat, so off I went to the library to get the one Helene Hanff book I hadn't yet read: Q's Legacy.

Q

For those of you not familiar with her, Hanff is the author of the fantastic letter collection 84, Charing Cross Road (containing her decades-long correspondence with the British used bookstore Marks & Co, and in particular one of its employees, Frank Doel) and the follow-up title The Duchess of Bloomsbury, in which she recounted her trip to London after the publication of 84. Q's Legacy is kind of a follow-up to the follow-up, in which she explains how she gave herself her own classics and English literature education by reading the lectures of a man named Arthur Quiller-Couch, a professor of English Lit at Cambridge. She also describes her early life in the theatre (you have to say it to yourself, "thea-tah," like I'm doing), her travails trying to find and keep affordable apartments in New York City, and how she came to be writing letters to Marks & Co in the first place. The latter part of the book is taken up with the details of several trips she took to London (after the one described in The Duchess of Bloomsbury), including the one to see the opening of a play based on her book.

Oh, and it's wonderful. It's vintage Helene. She's still full of snappy opinions and surprisingly gentle insights, and if you're interested in London, you get to hear even more about the city here. You also get to learn a bit more about Helene's life (although never enough, frankly), including her stint in secretarial school, where she corrected a teacher's grammar and was taken under the wing of the most popular girl there because of it. It also describes the fan mail and phone calls she got after the publication of 84 (one woman called and said simply, "We can talk as long as you're willing. The phone call is my husband's fortieth birthday present to me. He knew it was the one thing I wanted."). But mainly, it is all Helene, such as when she describes her cataract surgery:

"Fact One: Cataract surgery is simple, painless and (except with implants) risk-free; sight is easily restored by cataract spectacles, contact lenses or implants; the whole procedures is common, routine and nothing to worry about.

Fact Two: Fact One applies only to cataracts on the eyes in somebody else's head." (p. 139.)

It was just what I needed. When you need a treat, or a pick-me-up, or just another dose of Helene, go get this book.


Ah, relics, they always make for good reading.

You know you have slightly strange tastes in nonfiction when you see a book about saints' relics and you think, "Ooh, goody!" And you further know you've probably read too much nonfiction when you think, "I wonder if it will be as good as the other relic book I read?"*

Rag I was very, very excited to find Peter Manseau's book Rag and Bone: A Journey Among the World's Holy Dead in my library catalog. Not only because I find the idea of saints' relics (purported remnants of saints' bodies and other holy items--like pieces of the cross Jesus was crucified on--that are honored and venerated within various religions, including Catholicism and Buddhism) fascinating, but also because I love, love, LOVE Peter Manseau. (His memoir Vows, about his parents, a former nun and priest, and his childhood spent trying to understand their and his relationship with the Catholic Church, was hands-down one of the best memoirs I've ever read.)

This book finds Manseau traveling around to various holy sites, including Jerusalem and Goa, a city in India where the remains of Saint Francis Xavier are kept, and investigating such relics as the foreskin of Jesus (you heard me) and the burnt bones of Saint Joan. He strikes just exactly the right tone throughout; he is respectful without being obsequious, skeptical without being rude. He is, above all, fascinated by and thoughtful about his topic. This is what he has to say about Francis Xavier, who was an unenthusiastic missionary (at best) to India, although that is where his remains are today: "In death Francis Xavier had joined the lives of a people and a place where he had never wanted to remain. These children, born in the country he scorned, educated in a school that bears his name, have lived their lives in his shadow, but now they run in front of his church, casting their own." (p. 52.)

When I really love nonfiction I fall into very distinct feelings when reading it. Some nonfiction is exciting; some is inspiring, some makes me very angry; but my very favorite titles make me feel settled and thoughtful and peaceful. You know what I mean, about different feelings that books give you? This book makes me feel settled and peaceful, and it's wonderful. Right on, Peter Manseau.

*The other relic book was Anneli Rufus's Magnificent Corpses: Searching through Europe for St. Peter's Head, St. Claire's Heart, St. Stephen's Hand, and Other Relics from the Saints, which was also excellent. More personal in some ways, sharper in some ways, less historical and even-toned in others, but still brilliant.