Not Running From Xian to Trafalmadore

It's high time for a books post, but first a word about Kindle. As it relates to my preferred reading medium, I had long considered myself firmly in the camp of the traditionalist, wanting to feel the heft of a book in my hands, flip and dogear its pages and, yes, admire the cracked spines aligned vertically on my bookshelf. And then I saw a Kindle in person. One of the guys I worked with on the Official Halo: Reach Strategy Guide brought his first-gen Kindle in to show me. No amount of marketing or online advertisements can ever be as effective as those first ten seconds with a borrowed device. For it only took those few seconds to get it. The screen's eerie similarity to that of newspaper or a paperback immediately washed away my main reservation--the screen--and the ease of use, incredible battery life, and massive storage capacity won me over.

I went home that night and scoured all the information I could find on Amazon's site to see how many holes I could poke in its glossy veneer. None. One of the biggest selling points for me was the ability to share books with up to six Kindles on a single family account. This meant I could buy a book once (often at a steep discount over the physical form) and Kristin and I could be reading it simultaneously. Then I thought to travel guides and our future trips and realized I could pre-purchase all the guidebooks we would want and have them stored on the Kindles. A fine alternative to lugging around heavy travel guides, not to mention the challenge of finding English language guidebooks (or books in general) where nobody within a thousand miles speaks the language. I ordered a second-gen Kindle one evening late last summer, the 3G model, and have since purchased books while laying in bed well past midnight, in an airplane stuck in a lengthy queu on the runway, and, yes, in the bathroom. Kristin now has a Kindle too, one of the newer graphite-colored third-generation ones. I actually think the newest one is a little too sleak and prefer mine. She, of course, loves it. Kristin's sister gave us both Amazon gift cards for Christmas and I must say it was a lot of fun to pick out four different books each and have them beamed to both devices within seconds. We're both reading Ian Frazier's "On the Rez" right now, in fact.

Kristin was immediately impressed with the device, just as I was, and then I showed her the ability to instantly look up a word with its built-in dictionary, highlight passages, enter notes, and export your comments and selections as a PDF. She didn't appreciate these features right away, but moments later I heard her exclaim as she looked up her first word. Just as I had done the previous night, she too wondered what a "genet" was and didn't want to wait for the author to explain it, which he did a few sentences later. But enough about the Kindle, let's talk about some books.

I've been reading a lot lately, in part due to a serious case of insomnia, and I want to mention a few that I finished recently. First up is "The Shadow of the Silk Road" by Colin Thubron. Thubron is often mentioned in the same sentence as Paul Theroux when it comes to the world's great travel writers (that is, when people aren't discussing Theroux's penchant for being, in polite terms, an old crank). If you've read The Big Trip page on this blog, then the draw to a book about the Silk Road should be obvious. Thubron walked, bussed, and hitched his way along the historical trading route, from its eastern terminus in Xian westward across China, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Iran, and Turkey, to the Syrian coast. The book's title provides an important hint about the true focus of the book. This is not one of those "and then I did this, and then I saw that" travel books. This is about history. More specifically, about how the cultural boundaries that lie as residue from the ancient trading caravans bear little resemblance to the current political boundaries. Thubron writes not about himself, or even what his emotions are, but rather about what he sees and hears, and how it relates to history. He meets some very interesting people along the way, explores substantially on his own, and even gets himself locked in a Chinese quarantine at one point. But rarely does Thubron deviate from his effort to overlay the historical roadmap of the Silk Route atop the current layers of politics, religion, and culture and vice-versa.

This isn't my first time reading Thubron, but it is the first book of his I was able to finish. I received his "Lost Heart of Asia" as a gift several years back and had to shelve it after just a few dozen pages. I wasn't ready for it. It was heady material and my lack of knowledge and interest in the region at that time made my head swim. Having read a lot of travel literature (and just travel essays in general), I've noticed that there is a broad spectrum of styles out there ranging from the simple journaling entries to those books that strive to be literature. Or is that Literature? I forget. I would place Thubron, or at least this book, at the far end of that line, representing the lofty pinnacle of literature and seriousness (but not pretentiousness). His anecdotes and personality seldom bleed into the story, he offers little in the way of editorializing, and his level of understanding and breadth of his research are beyond equal. You read these books not to be entertained but for knowledge. I mentioned Theroux earlier, almost out of obligation. I'd place him slightly down the line, but not far from Thubron, though the differences between the two men are large. Both are masters of language, I will say that. But there is a lot more personality in Theroux's writings along with much more emphasis on the actual act of traveling. You'll hear Theroux comment--complain, mostly--about his arrangements, his traveling partners, and his food far more in one chapter than you will Thubron in an entire book. Theroux is certainly an easier read and, despite his penchant for being a bit whiny, more entertaining as well, for what it's worth. Other books, like the lighthearted "Sex Lives of Cannibals" by J. Maarten Troost and the family-journaling of John Higham's "360 Degrees Longitude" occupy the other end of this spectrum where the emphasis tends to be less on the location and culture, and more about the travelers. Having designs of my own to enter this genre soon, I've been thinking a lot lately about where my "voice" will fit on this spectrum. Somewhere in the middle, I hope. Regardless, the one thing I know for sure after reading "Shadow of the Silk Road" is that Thubron is certainly in a league of his own.

Wanting something quite a bit lighter, my next book was actually the serial story "The Game" by Jack London. This was London's seminal story about his favorite sport, boxing, and was published in the spring of 1905 in the Metropolitan Magazine. Set in Oakland, California the story follows the love affair a young neighborhood boxing champ has with both with his sport, the game, and his delicate financee who wants him to quit boxing. They are one another's first true love and in honor of their pending marriage, he agrees to make his next fight his last, despite being at the top of his boxing career. London's experience in the ring and love of the sport as a reporter are evident here as he tells a fantastic heart-pounding story. The language can feel a bit dated, but the excitement can match anything from today.

Normally I make a point of not making any resolutions come the turn of the new year, but the Kindle made it easy to start a new one: reading at least one quote-unquote classic each year. First up was the most popular book from one of my favorite authors, and a book I have long felt shame for having not read. Yep, it was time to read "Slaughterhouse Five" by Kurt Vonnegut. And so I could say, with a certain amount of confidence, that my first week of 2011, in my thirty-sixth year on this planet, was spent in much the same way as more than a few high school sophomores. Go figure. Crazy as it may sound, I managed to approach this book with no prior knowledge of its subject. Whatever I may have gleamed from second-hand reports over the years had escaped my memory. So it was with pleasant surprise that I soon came to find, in that familiar Vonnegut voice, a book about World War II, space aliens, optometry, the faraway planet of Trafalmadore, time travel, zoo-exhibit sex with a porn star, and the seemingly forgotten assault on the city of Dresden, Germany that, at the time of this book's publication, was erroneously believed to far exceed the casualty tally of Hiroshima.

Vonnegut's trademark style of writing in a series of short entries and blurbs keeps the story moving quickly, as does his ever-present wit. The book is indeed quite funny at times, but also somber. Vonnegut clearly calls on his own experiences as a prisoner-of-war during WWII and the memories of what he saw during the aftermath of the fire-bombing of Dresden and it's startling. Just last winter I stood in the main square of Frankfurt's old-town neighborhood, comparing the current scene built to imitate the past to WWII before-and-after postcards. The aerial shots of the utter destruction made me gasp at the devastation we humans can inflict on one another. A quick bit of research now tells me the devastation of Frankfurt quite possibly paled in comparison to the assault on Dresden. We're all lucky Vonnegut survived this journey to the "moon's surface" and, if like me, you've made it this far without reading "Slaughterhouse Five" then you owe it to yourself to pick it up. Vonnegut may have passed away in 2007, but this story is timeless.

Lastly, I direct your attention to the extremely entertaining page-turner "Whatever You Do, Don't Run: True Stories of a Botswana Safari Guide" by Peter Allison. Poor, poor Allison. Coming on the heels of my readings of Thubron, London, and Vonnegut, the poor guy didn't stand a chance. I all but threw the Kindle down in disgust during the first chapter, turning up my nose at his amateurish language, lack of details, and his tendency to gloss over large chunks of story. Fortunately, those first two chapters bear little resemblance to the quality of the storytelling of the remainder of the book. I'm so glad I kept reading though as this book had me laughing out loud, groaning with embarrassment over the imbeciles attending his tours, and completely mesmerized by the recounts of his man-meets-predator encounters. It's clear that Allison has kept many a campfire audience completely entranced by his tales from the bush and that he was convinced to write a book. This book is essentially a collection of stand-alone stories accumulated from a decade of guiding tourists on safari in Botswana. I think it's pretty obvious how a job like that can produce more than a handful of entertaining stories. I know it's not summer, but if you want a "beach" book to read as a guilty pleasure, make it this one. At the very least, you'll learn what a genet is.

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