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In Bed with the Phantom:
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First, I reread The Old Patagonian Express, a book he wrote about 30 years ago. One of his first. He begins his journey in Boston and he travels by train from Boston to Patagonia (which is at the bottom of South America). I had totally forgotten every word he had written so it was like going there for the first time. I know that I read the book because I made a hand-written list on the fly page, of the books he mentioned reading while on the trip. That's one of the things he does to pass the time. He brings books with him and reads incessantly, and comments on what he has read. I love that part.
Let me be brief, not much as changed for the better in Central or South America. Incredible poverty, dirty cities, crowded, decrepit trains, desperate people. Some lovely sights, but mostly just a disappointing and depressing journey that even Paul was glad to see ending, on a night train in Patagonia, literally the end of the earth.
Then I noticed on my bookshelf, Dark Star Safari, also by Paul Theroux. It had been resting there a while, from 2003, actually. I had forgotten to read it. Oh goody. This one begins in Cairo, where Paul is trying to get visas for his journey south. He wants to travel down the Nile, through Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Malawi and eventually to South Africa. The first 120 pages are all Cairo, interesting, but I felt like he was dithering. The adventure starts when he heads off to Sudan, first by boat, and then overland, by car, then truck, sometimes by bus. He had an awful time, at one point riding on top of a truck being shot at by road bandits. A nail biter. He eventually gets to Malawi, where he worked as a teacher for the Peace Corps many years ago. It was a horrible disappointment to see that things have changed for the worse. Do-gooders expect and predict that things will get better once the people become educated. For the most part that didn't happen. He ends up in South Africa, but is actually reluctant to go back home. He had a great time, I was glad to hear that he got on the plane. I was exhausted by this book.
Next I read The Last Train to Zona Verde, published in 2013. Paul starts in Cape Town, where he left off in the previous book. His pals all tell him not to go to Namibia, and definitely do not even think of setting foot in Angola, but that was his plan. The book is subtitled: my ultimate African Safari. Paul is familiar with Africa, as we know quite well by this time.
I was captivated by this particular journey. It was cruel, and heart wrenching to read about the extreme poverty and deplorable conditions. Tourists, the safari people, tend to stay in parts of Africa that have been carved out for them, manicured and proscribed, so that nobody sees what's really going on. This book is truly an eye opener. Paul writes in a journal that he carries with him all the time. He also carries books, this time he read the same book several times because there was nowhere to buy another along the way.
He spent very little time on trains. They just aren't running any longer. When Africa was in the hands of the British, there were trains. Some still exist, but long gone are the timely schedules, clean coaches and reliable service. Now most folks catch rides on buses, and trucks making their way uneasily through the bush, over bad roads with dangerous check points and bandits. Crossing borders like tempting fate. Paul manages it but he is often in extreme danger. He's an old guy now, and he tries to blend in, so he is dismissed as just another harmless old man. I think if the local pols knew exactly who was snooping around, he would have a harder time of it.
I was fascinated, and felt like I had actually journeyed to darkest, bleakest Africa with Paul. Thank you for the ride, Paul. It was a stunning adventure.
But I wasn't done with Paul yet. I wandered into Barnes & Noble one day and found Paul's latest book, Deep South: four seasons on the back roads. 2015. This is a totally different kind of adventure. It's a road trip, with Paul driving. He lives in the Boston area, so he could drive. He relishes the ease and convenience of reliable transportation, so the journey is not the trek itself but the people he meets along the way. The deep south is in trouble, again Paul finds the poverty and rough living many folks endure. He makes lots of friends, and revisits them in each season. He travels through most of the south looking in odd corners, talking, or rather, listening to strangers, and then checking back with them.
It's not laziness that keeps mostly the black people in poverty in the south, it's lack of opportunity. No work, mainly. Most small towns that were doing well in the past, are now derelict and closed down, main streets boarded up. The reason is because the work left town. Most of the small towns at one time had some manufacturing or food processing company where most folks worked. Then bingo, no work, the plants closed. Most often the companies sent the work offshore. A familiar story. But the towns depended on the company for its survival. Now there is nothing. That's a familiar but depressing story. The towns need businesses of some type to move back. It's not happening.
But Paul finds resilience and fortitude, along with cultural history that is most interesting. He even does a riff on southern writers that I found quite interesting. He had time to delve into things that get overlooked these days.
I loved this book too, and was charmed that Paul finally found time to visit the US as subject matter for a travel adventure.
I did read, or partially read, a lot of books this summer but I won't bore you with them. I think it's time for some better books to get written. Slim pickings! So I'm currently reading books about books and bookshops. I'll fill you in later,
In the meantime,
I just finished reading the Comey book, A Higher Loyalty. It's well worth your time. Clear writing, and from the heart. A memoir of Comey's professional life in government service. And his ethics. It's not a boastful book, just an honest retelling of the events of his life and why things went down the way they did. He's the one who cleaned up the mafia gangs in NYC. He's the guy who sent Martha Stewart to the slammer. Those stories were so interesting. Eventually, toward the end of the book, he talks about Hillary and the emails. Good to hear it from him. I still think he had other choices, but he does make a good case for why he did what he did. Then he gets to trump and how he was fired, and why. Essentially, he was fired because he wouldn't pledge loyalty to trump, ie, go easy on trump's pals like Flynn, and drop the Russia investigation. Comey wouldn't do that. Comey's loyalty is to the American People and the FBI, not trump. It's definitely a book that is essential reading if you want to understand what's going on now.
To be truthful with you, I haven't done much pleasure reading lately. I've been caught up in Washington politics and have spent most of my reading moments with news articles. It can take up lots of free time and it's totally depressing. I give big shout outs to the Washington Post, the New York Times, USA Today, Politico, Vanity Fair, the New Yorker, Mother Jones, Salon, even the Wall Street Journal, and all of the online news outlets for their continuing and exhaustive coverage. I don't watch Fox or CNN, or much of the TV news any longer. I'd rather read the news than try to follow the frenzy on TV.
However, I did read The Rooster Bar, by John Grisham. I spent the weekend reading this thriller. I needed to get the politics out of my head. The topics for this novel were law student loans and deportations. John melded the two into a first rate story. I don't know how he does it, but he manages to keep my attention like nothing else does. He claims that we need to remember that these stories of his are fiction, but this one definitely has a ring of truth to it, and it held my interest until the last page, as usual. It was law students trying to figure out how to get out from under the huge load of debt they had racked up. They were very creative. One of them had parents who had been in the US for years but were being deported because of new ICE policies. Great story, very believable. Thrillers need to teach us something or else they are a waste of time.
I am still buying books and filling up my Kindle with
TBRs. There are half read books with their bookmarks staring at me on
every table and bookcase in the house. I decided to gather them up and
share them with you, just for laughs.
Saints of the Shadow Bible, Ian Rankin is a
British police procedural writer. It's a good story, but you know how
the British are, so many tea breaks and endless procedures.
Books I haven't even looked at yet:
I won't annoy you with another list. My Kindle reading will remain a mystery for now.
Have a great summer. Buy a real paperback and take it to the beach with you. It's a way better experience than Kindle reading. And if somebody steals it while you are on the water caught in a riptide, meh.
Later, the Phantom
Y is for Yesterday, by Sue Grafton. I'll start with this one. I was going to say some critical things about this mystery but under the circumstances I will applaud it instead. Y is a typical Grafton mystery, which Kinsey solves in her usual style. I was looking forward to Z, the final book in the series, thinking that it would be something special, a finale that wraps things up nicely. Maybe Kinsey finds somebody to share her life with, or wins the lottery. Anything that would convince us that all will be well in Santa Teresa.
Some of you may know that we lost Sue Grafton a couple weeks ago. Apparently she had been suffering from cancer for the past two years. So that means she was still writing while undergoing the usual cancer battle, which rarely ends well. She fully intended to finish this series, but unfortunately the completed series will not include Z. For her faithful readers, like me, it's a sad time. Kinsey Milhone won't be doing any further reports, and we will have to come up with our own happy ending for all the characters in this remarkable series.
Camino Road, by John Grisham, is my favorite book of the year. It's not your typical Grisham story. No lawyers this time. It's about books, bookstores, and first editions, rare books, stuff like that. There is something of a mystery, but no dead bodies. I liked that. Instead we are treated to a story about a somewhat shady bookstore owner, and a cast of writers that made me giggle. I loved this book, so much that I bought a hard copy of it after I read it, a first edition that John had signed.
Two by Michael Connelly, The Wrong Side of Good bye, The Late Show. Both are great page turners when you are doing too many things at once and need a breather. Good-bye is a Harry Bosch novel, where Harry becomes a private eye, something he never wanted to do. Loved that take, he makes a great one. Hope it continues. The story is believable and compelling. Late is a woman cop, new character. Another good story. Michael just keeps turning them out and never disappoints.
Japanese Lover, by Isabelle Allende. This is a truly remarkable love story about older folks. Actually it should be in the "saga" category because it follows the same main character through her entire life. It reads very "current", not old fashioned at all. Applause to Allende for being able to keep her writing fresh. There are many quite beautiful passages in it. This book would make a great gift to an older friend.
Nothing Allende writes is formulaic. I'm currently reading In the Midst of Winter, also by her, which is also relevant and timely. It's set in New York City but she also includes some horror stories about Latin America, stuff we need to hear.
Testimony, by Scott Turow. I felt like Scott was showing off through most of this book. It's about the 1990s era ethnic cleansing wars. It's a piece of history that has been forgotten by most readers, although it shouldn't be. Serbia and Croatia, Romania, are difficult for Americans. Some cannot even find that area on the map. The war was complicated and so is this book.
Scott chooses to tell the story through the eyes of
an American prosecutor who is asked to join the international war crimes
court to represent American interests. The case involves refugees from
Bosnia, gypsies no less. It's complicated because there is a love
interest, sort of. Our lawyer becomes co-opted right away, and doesn't
know it. I think it would have been a much more worthy effort if
Scott had left out that part. He probably figured he had to add that
element so we would stay the course. Turow's work is considered to be
legal thrillers, but this one was not terribly thrilling, and I would
have much rather read it without the "love" interest.
Canada, by Richard Ford. This is a very strange book, a first-person narrative of what happened to the narrator when he was 15 years old. I usually don't like stories told by kids but this one kept my attention. It begins in Great Falls, Montana, and eventually moves to the Canadian outback above Montana. Scary times for the young boy, whose parents abandon him. I won't mention just how that happens because I don't want to spoil the story, but the whole storyline is so quirky and unwholesome that I wondered just how Richard thought of it to begin with. Talk about dysfunctional people, there isn't one person in this whole story that I could categorize as "nice" or "conventional" or "worthwhile to know." Canada doesn't fare much better. This is not a travel book, smiling to myself as I write this.
Spring 2017, An essay A Literary Journey
Fall 2016: As I write this update, my daughter Karen and I are smack in the middle of Moby Dick, by Herman Melville. We are reading it as a book club might (a very serious book club.) We assign pages, maybe 35 at a time, and we take our books to a restaurant or Starbucks for a nice long discussion. This book needs serious sorting out. We are reading real physical books and writing in the margins, bending page corners, and using post it notes to remember "good places" and sometimes going word-by-word to figure things out. I've re-read whole chapters that are so dense that they need some translation.
It's the novel of Ahab, the ship captain's obsession and revenge, and above all, it's a novel of perception. I can't remember another narrator who sees as much as Ishmael does. It's very wordy, in a Shakespearian way at times, and overwhelming. The narrative devices Ishmael uses vary from poetry to play scripts, and everything in between. I can't decide whether Ishmael, the sailor is as astute as is Ishmael the narrator, who must be writing this memoir some years after the fact.
I'm not looking forward to the actual meet up of the white whale with the Pequod harpooneers. I've warned Karen that I might have to skip that part. But there is so much to say beforehand about the whaling industry and whalers. It's a miracle that we still have whales. The narrator Ishmael spends a lot of time with the smallest observations about the whiteness of things (ominous), and his ship mates, each one gets a bio, so we will understand how they all fit into this story. And all matter of sea going things that us land lubbers never even give thought to. And Karen and I are finding so many similarities to our present day lives that it's amusing and uncanny. Moby Dick is very much worth reading, is considered a classic American novel, and now I understand why.
I'm also trying to read the latest Mitch Rapp thriller, called The Survivor. I was charmed by this character when Vince Flynn was still alive. (Flynn was about 42 when he died of pancreatic cancer, a year or so ago.) Now someone has taken over where he left off, but it's definitely not the same writing, or plot or even intent. I'm not sure I can finish the book. Just looked at some Amazon reviews. I'm not alone. Too bad. Not everybody can write a thriller, even though a lot of writers think it's a piece of cake.
As I grow older, I have less time or interest in reading bad writing, trite plots, and long stories that seem not to know when to end. So more and more books get sampled and discarded. I don't care at all that so many books are going unfinished. But I do savor the ones that I love so much I don't want to see end. Bring those on!
Oh, you wanna find out what the Phantom was reading last year? Really? Click here then.
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