I've been reading a lot of fiction this year. An awful lot of fiction. Of the 35 books I've read since January, a scant 5 of them are nonfiction. In an effort to tip the ratio away from such a fiction-heavy rotation, I decided that September would be "nonfiction month." I have many more fiction books that I'm eager to check out, but it seemed like a good idea to take a month out from the world of the made-up and invest a little time what actually is and has been.
My best-friend-in-law Tasci recommended this book a few months ago, so I was willing to take a chance on this seemingly bland topic. Get it? Salt? Bland? Nevermind. Salt is something we don't think much about these days, but for thousands of years it helped shape the course of history. Up until a hundred years or so ago, salt was a relatively rare substance and those who controlled the salt controlled the power of commerce. The book was really interesting, but a bit dry at points. I really enjoyed the parts discussing the scientific makeup of salt, as well as the role salt played in early US history. If you're a history buff, it's worth checking out, but be prepared for a few slow parts.
Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlanski -
I'm an introvert. I know this may surprise a lot of people reading this, but it's true. It's not easy being an introvert in an extrovert's world, but that's the situation I've found myself in for the past 34 years. This book does a really nice job detailing the differences between introversion and extroversion, and makes the case for a better understanding between people of each persuasion. Really, though, I mostly recommend this book for people who have important people in their lives who are introverts, whom they want to understand better, especially extrovert spouses and parents of introverts. It will give you a good introduction into better understanding how we work.
Boom. There it is. "The N-Word." In the history of the spoken word, perhaps no other word has had as much power to anger, infuriate, subjugate, or at the very least make people uncomfortable. This book covers the history of the word, the history of its acceptance and use in the popular culture, and the way in which it has been dealt with in recent history since becoming widely recognized as taboo. It was definitely an uncomfortable read, but sometimes uncomfortable subjects need to be addressed. I'm not certain I agree with the author's conclusions about the words appropriateness or the way it should be handled, but I think it's a subject should perhaps be tackled head-on instead in hushed whispers behind closed doors.
Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word by Randall Kennedy -
After reading Stephen King's 11/22/63, I was really interested in the idea of how American history -- and world history -- has hinged on a series of small events, and how radically things might have been different had things gone another way. Then Everything Changed explored this very question in a handful of specific events: The near-assassination of JFK in 1960, JFK's assassination in 1968, and a critical gaffe in during the 1976 Presidential debates. After getting into this book, I'm not sure that it's accurately categorized as "nonfiction," as the assumptions the author makes about these "alternate histories" take a few liberties that could be construed as far-fetched. Obviously, we have no way to know what actually would have been, but Greenfield makes an entertaining guess. Definitely recommended for history buffs who want to debate the author's story, but also very much recommended for people of my generation, born just after these events took place, who don't know a lot about the twenty critical years in US history before the 1980's.
About this series: One year ago, January and I took our eight-month-old daughter, packed up a few bags, and headed overseas to attend the wedding of her best friend in Prague. Although the trip was very well photographed and tweeted, the trip left us without enough energy to actually blog about it afterwards. On this, the one year anniversary of our trip, I'm going to finally write about our journey. Enjoy!
Prague. We're finally here. We started our journey at Columbus International Airport and a mere two flights and sixteen hours later, we're halfway around the world and ready for two weeks of sightseeing, relaxing, and celebrating as Tasci and Honza get married. Overall the trip went prett well, but it wasn't without it's stressful points. We tried to do a pretty job thinking things through and planning the best ways to make international travel with an infant as easy as possible, but we did learn a few lessons along the way.
I'm notoriously nervous about airports. I'm pretty sure that I'm the only person in the world who actually shows up a full two hours before flights, as the TSA recommends. The first leg of our trip wasn't even international, but we still showed up way, way in advance of our 11:50am departure. This wouldn't have been a big deal, except that this flight ended up being delayed. The time between flights wasn't a big deal -- we had about five hours to kill once we got to JFK -- but Lucy did get a little figety just hanging out in the airport for that long. Fortunately, we had charging cables for our iPhones to keep January and me entertained, and a nice collapsable stroller to keep Lucy happy.
But we did make it to JFK, and with plenty of time to spare to catch the second leg of our flight directly into Prague. The one big piece of advice we received -- from numerous people -- was that if we were traveling with an infant we had to make sure we got the bulkhead bassinet seats. If you're unfamiliar with this, I'll explain; Most large airplanes, as you probably do know if you've flown cross-country or internationally, are kind of divided in half with a restrooms in the middle of the plane. Directly behind where the restrooms are is a row of seats with considerably more legroom. There are also bolts and straps on the wall that these seats face where you can mount a small cradle large enough for a baby to sleep in. "That would be amazing!" we thought. "We'll book a flight that takes off in the evening, put Lucy down to sleep, and by the time we land in Prague she'll be awake and happy and ready to go!" What they don't tell you about the bulkhead seats, though, is that throughout the entire flight you will have people waiting to use the restroom leaning up against that wall, waking your kid up after they have been asleep for maybe -- maybe -- fifteen minutes.
Lucy wasn't very happy about this, so January and I ended up taking turns with her strapped our chests, standing in the back of the plane. While I wasn't able to enjoy any of the in-flight entertainment, I did basically see every scene from Bridesmaids playing on one screen or another. I pieced the order of the scenes together in my mind and, let me tell you, that is one confusing movie.
After eight hours of this, we touched down at Airport Prague Ruzyne where our vacation could finally begin. Lucy really was a trooper throughout the whole trip, and while it ultimately took her a day or two to get onto European time, we couldn't have asked for a better experience travelling with her. A couple of things I would have done differently, however:
Some things we did do right, and I absolutely recommend:
Next up, getting onto a European sleep schedule and seeing the sites!
A little more than three months ago, something awful happened: My beloved iPhone became irretrievably lost.
We were on vacation in Ocean Isle Beach, NC with my family. This was Lucy's first beach vacation, and we were excited to document it all, so we invested in a Lifeproof waterproof iPhone case so we could get some good photos and videos. And we did. The case worked great, and if that's something you're in the market for, I recommend it with one small caveat: If you're going to invest $50-80 in a waterproof case for your iPhone so you can take photos and videos out in the ocean, you might want to splurge and spend the extra cash and invest in the floating case that goes with it. Because let me tell you something: That ocean can be a bastard. All it took was one particularly nasty wave and it's the last you'll see of that multi-hundred dollar piece of electronics. In memoriam, here is the last photo ever taken by that phone, of Lucy going for a ride with cousins Emma and Will.
Needless to say, I was pretty upset about this loss. When I had purchased it only six months prior, I was pretty certain that was going to be my phone for the next 2-3 years. I have typically upgraded each year, but I felt that the iPhone 4s was finally at the point where I would be content with its features longterm. So when it went into the drink, there was absolutely a mourning period. Despite offers, I couldn't bring myself to use the older model iPhones that some friends kindly offered, instead opting for an old-school, circia 2007 non-smartphone to tide me over the three long months until the next iPhone model would surely be announced. I also justified it by recognizing that the $30 I would save each month on the iPhone data plan would put me that much closer to saving the amount necessary to buy the soon-to-be brand new model.
A funny thing happened over the course of the past three months, though. I've kind of enjoyed not being as connected as I once was. Don't get me wrong, there are lots of features that I still absolutely love about the iPhone -- especially when travelling -- like the maps, Facetime video chat, and having my music collection on hand at all times. But I've equally enjoyed not getting notified immediately whenever I get a new email or feeling the need to document my meal on Instagram. In fact, the date nights that January and I have been out on since losing the iPhone have been some of the most enjoyable in years, partly due to the fact that I wasn't nose-deep in technology half of the evening.
That said, I'm pretty conficted about today's Apple event, presumably announcing the new iPhone. The rumored features don't really excite me all that much, but that's never really stopped me from upgrading in the past. With the absence of my iPhone, my first-generation iPad has taken on a new level of importance as my portable connection to the Internet. I think I'm going to take a "wait and see" approach to see if the rumors about a smaller "iPad mini" being announced next month pan out. In a perfect world, Apple would release an updated iPod touch with a decent camera (at least 720p video, please) and at least 3G data capabilities. I don't really need the phone part of the iPhone, but the data connection and camera are a must if I'm going to spend that money.
Until then, I'll be carrying around my dumb-phone, texting T9 style, and rocking my circa 2004 iPod Photo for my music needs. I'm just old school, I guess.
I'm officially back on track for my goal of reading 52 books this year! My nightstand this month has hosted a wide variety of genres, from Irish detective mysteries to graphic novels to science fiction, it's been a full month. Here's a quick overview.
I was really, really conflicted about this book. Although I read it very quickly, it took me a considerable amount of time to decide if I thought it was a 2-star book or a 4-star book. I'm giving it the benefit of the doubt for now and going with a 3-star rating, simply because it did hold my attention and keep me interested. The problem with this book isn't necessarily that it's trying too hard -- Lord knows how many authors do -- but that one feels the author is constantly winking at the reader, trying to remind the reader of how clever he is. And I'm just not convinced that it worked.
I realize that my review really doesn't tell you anything at all about the book itself, so here's the long and the short: Cloud Atlas is a collection of six stories that take place over a span of 3 centuries interwoven together in a way that shows how the main character of one story affects the protagonist of the next. Like a matryoshka doll, Cloud Atlas takes you through the story within the story down all six levels, and then back out again. Every story is written in a different style, and while I found some of them harder to get through than others, I did appreciate each story's "voice" fitting the time period.
I'm sure you'll hear a lot of hype about this book over the coming months, as the movie adaptation is due out this fall. If the movie trailer catches your attention, give the book a shot. If you can forgive the author's occasional self-imporance, I think there's a decent story in there.
Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell -
I do love a good tragedy, and Tana French never fails to make me want to blow my brains out in the best way possible. This is the fourth book in her Dublin Murder Squad detective series, in each of which she tells the story of a lead detective in an Irish police force as they try to solve a particular crime. This book focuses on a triple-homicide in an abandoned housing development: A man and his two children are found murdered, with the wife as the sole survivor of the attack. Dublin Murder Squad's top detective Mick "Scorcher" Kennedy and his rookie partner are put on the case, and things slowly unravel from there.
I loved French's first three books, and she didn't let me down on this one either. If you like mystery books, definitely start with In the Woods and work your way through the series. I don't think you'll be disappointed.
Broken Harbor, by Tana French -
Jericho is one of those TV shows that I've been aware of for a while, but never had the time to check out. The first season premiered in 2006 and was cancelled after lackluster ratings. The fans convinced the network to bring the show back, but it was finally put to rest after another half a season. Earlier this year, I finally got the chance to watch this show on Netflix and really enjoyed it. It's the story of a nuclear attack on the United States as seen through the eyes of a small Kansas town. The first half of the season, in fact, the viewer is kept as in the dark as the town is and the details are slowly revealed as news makes its way to the town.
Jericho Season 3: Civil War is the continuation of the the Jericho story and picks up directly after the events of the TV show's second season. This isn't some fan fiction; It was actually written by the TV show's writers. I've never been a big comic book guy, but I was interested in knowing what the writers had planned, so I gave it a shot. Overall, there wasn't a whole lot of meat to the book -- and maybe that's just how comic books are? -- but I did enjoy seeing where the show was going. If you saw the TV show and are hungry for more, it's worth a read. Otherwise, there's not a lot of point in it.
Jericho Season 3: Civil War, by Don Shotz -
The author of this book happens to be my second cousin, and he recently had his first book published. I never really gave bridges a whole lot of thought, but I'm a little more knowledgeable about them after having read this short book. Having spent a few years living in Chicago, it definitely put the subject matter in a light that made it a lot more interesting. If you've ever wanted to know about the history of the various types of moving bridges in America, this is a great short read on the subject.
Chicago's Bridges, by Nathan Holth -
I love Philip K. Dick as much as the next guy, but man are his books hard to get into. I love his short stories (Paycheck, The Minority Report, The Golden Man), but his full-length novels are just really hard for me to work through for whatever reason. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is the book that the highly-successful 1982 movie Blade Runner was based on. There are quite a few differences between the movie and the book, but the basic premise of a bounty hunter chasing down a group of six androids illegally on Earth remains. There are lots of philosophical questions about the nature of existance, but overall I was just kind of slogging through the book. Dick does short stories really well, but it seems like when he tries to devote more than fifty pages to a story it gets kind of rough.
Earlier this month I decided to go camping. Just me and my dog, Gus. I recognize that some may find the idea of camping in the woods without any company other than your dog a horrifying thought, but to me it sounded like a perfect 24 hours; No obligations, no distractions, just relaxing in the quiet of the outdoors. The only advanced technology I took with me was my circa 2007 phone-calls-only cell phone and my second generation Kindle. I planned to spend at least 75% of my time reading by the campfire, so I wanted to make sure my Kindle was loaded with some books appropriate for camping with one's best four-legged friend.
The Dog Stars the a post-apocalyptic story of a man and his dog who live in an airplane hangar in Colorado. For the nine years since a superflu wiped out 99% of the world's population, they've spent their days taking daily perimeter checks in a 1956 Cessna plane. Their only company is their gun-nut neighbor who helps them defend their land from the occasional roving gangs.
While there's nothing amazing here, it was a good read and really enjoyable. After setting up camp and getting a fire started, I sat down and read through the first 60% of this book in one go, stopping only to roast a hot dog or throw another log on the fire. If you're up for yet another post-apocalyptic journey of self-discovery, you could do a lot worse than this book.
The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller -
After tearing through The Dog Stars in my first day camping, I moved on to another story about a man and his dog. In 1960, John Steinbeck set out on a cross-country roadtrip with his French standard poodle, Charley, in an attempt to rediscover the America that he had lost touch with over the years. Appropriately, my opinion of this book matches nearly exactly with Steinbeck's experience on the road; We were both excited and eager at the beginning, and slowly lost interest over the course of the journey. There are easily a hundred quotables here, but the overall journey grew somewhat scattered and tired almost as quickly as it began.
Overall, though, I did enjoy the story and the writing. Travels with Charley serves as something of a bookend to Kerouac's On the Road. Written nearly ten years earlier by a man thirty years younger, it's full of excitement and hope that only a man first discovering America, without any expectations, can have. Travels with Charley, on the other hand, is scattered with disappointment at not finding what was expected.
Travels with Charley: In Search of America, by John Steinbeck -
After the somewhat disappointing Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? I felt like I had to get a few of Dick's short stories back into my system. This collection features some of my favorites, including Beyond Lies the Wub, Paycheck, and The Minority Report. Great collection, if you haven't read much of Philip K. Dick's work, this is a great introduction.
Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick, by Philip K. Dick -