Sunday, April 28, 2013

To Hellholes and Back: Bribes, Lies, and the Art of Extreme Tourism by Chuck Thompson

I liked Thompson's previous book Smile When You're Lying so I was looking forward to reading this one. In To Hellholes and Back, Thompson visits a few places he has always avoided.

He starts out with a visit to Africa, particularly a safari in southern Africa and a journey through the Democratic Republic of the Congo (nee Zaire, nee Belgian Congo). Then he visits India with his wife for a month. In Mexico City he calls in a friend who will be familiar to readers of Smile When You're Lying. Finally, he takes on Walt Disney World.

Thompson's style is humorous and sarcastic, and he avoids the cliches of most travel writers (he pointed out many of them in Smile When You're Lying). He devotes many more pages to interactions with the locals than descriptions of scenic vistas. I enjoyed this book because it really gives a sense of what it's like to travel through these places though I have no interest in going myself.

Friday, April 26, 2013

The Titanic Awards: Celebrating the Worst of Travel by Doug Lansky

The Titanic Awards is a humorous collection of news stories, Internet survey results, and official studies that highlight the lowlights of the world. Personal recollections from a number of travel writers are interspersed among the awards. I found it amusing that the author acknowledged that this isn't the kind of book someone should sit down and read straight through (I could have done the same in Biking Illinois). I read it aloud to my wife over the course of a couple weeks. We actually stayed at the "Tackiest Hotel Architecture" winner: Dog Bark Park Inn in Cottonwood, Idaho. We thought it was pretty neat.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Perfect Timing

I just sat down at Philly's Best on Belmont to read Into Thick Air by Jim Malusa wherein a cyclist is riding through Australia. First song on the PA? "Down Under" by Men At Work!

Saturday, April 20, 2013

My Mercedes Is Not For Sale: From Amsterdam to Ouagadougou... an Auto-Misadventure Across the Sahara by Jeroen Van Bergeijk

Selling "used up" European cars in Africa is a shockingly huge business. According to the author, half a million cars are sent from Europe to Africa annually. Ships transport the greatest numbers, but driving an old car south from Europe to sell has been a popular adventure since the 1970s. Used cars can sell in Africa for twice what one pays in Europe, which at least it helps defray the travel expenses. Oddly enough, Mercedes is the most popular marque in West Africa. Of course, this is not your boss's Mercedes. This is the Mercedes he traded in 15 years ago.

In 2004, Van Bergeijk bought a 1988 Mercedes 190 D for $1200 in the Netherlands. This book describes his journey along the western coast of Africa. Interspersed in the travelogue are his efforts to track down all of his car's previous owners.

I enjoyed this book, though it didn't exactly whet my appetite for my own West African adventure. I'd much rather read about it than deal with all the hassles involved. Special credit goes to John Antonides for translating the text into English. I never felt like I was reading a book that had been written in a different language.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Another Sign of Old Age

I messed up my back last week. It wasn't terrible, but I endured five days of wincing every time I tried to bend over or straighten up. Naturally, this happened just before I had to move every single item in our attic in preparation for an insulation and air sealing project plus carry a bunch of stuff down the stairs and out to the alley.

It wouldn't be a big deal—I've had minor backaches occasionally and this one wasn't really any different—except for the way I hurt myself. Lifting something too heavy? Not bending my knees? Nope. Actually, it did not involve lifting at all. I hurt my back by sitting down on the couch. I don't know; I guess my butt didn't land in quite the right spot and my back got jammed up somehow. Anyway, the point is that people in their 20s don't injure themselves so casually. But apparently 40-somethings do.

Monday, April 15, 2013

March Wrap-Up/April Theme

March's religion theme turned out to be challenging. I only finished six books and spent as much time staring off into space as I did reading. I had a hard time getting through The Faith Instinct, and I gave up on another book at the end of the month, When Religion Becomes Evil by Charles Kimball. It isn't a bad book; I managed 100 pages but just couldn't get into it. With a couple days left in March, I decided to forge ahead with the first book of April's theme instead.

And April's theme is... Vicarious vacations! I need a break after all those religion books, and I have plenty of travel memoirs to choose from. Plus I'd really like to be hitting the road for a vacation, but that isn't going to happen anytime soon. So while I'm stuck here in Chicago, I'll tour the world through someone else's words.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Pocket Guide to Sainthood: A Field Manual for the Super-Virtuous Life by Jason Boyett

I told you there would be more of Boyett and here it is, the last book I read in March. Naturally, its format and tone is similar to Pocket Guide to the Bible. It includes a glossary (titled "There Should Have Been a St. Webster"), a descriptive listing of popular saints, a selection of patron saints and their causes, the details of the canonization process, and a chapter of random lists.

The stories of the saints, particularly from The Golden Legend, are unbelievably gruesome. The quickest path to sainthood is to be martyred, and many saints didn't have quick or mundane deaths. Boyett has a lot of fun with these horrific but improbable tales. He also notes several saints who most likely never existed.

Like the other pocket guide, I read this aloud to my wife. We both enjoyed Boyett's sarcasm, though my wife was disgusted by some of the martyr stories (odd considering her encyclopedic knowledge of serial killers). I also have Boyett's Pocket Guide to the Apocalypse, but the month ran out before we could start it.


The Accidental Buddhist: Mindfulness, Enlightenment, and Sitting Still, American Style by DInty W. Moore

Dharma Punx whetted my appetite for exploring Buddhism. While reading it, I found The Accidental Buddhist in the Half Price Books clearance section (coincidentally, there was also a copy of Dharma Punx in the clearance section that day; I bought mine during the Borders bankruptcy).

In this book, Moore explores several flavors of American Buddhism. He participates in Buddhist communities in monasteries and private homes. He sees the Dalai Lama in Indiana and even asks him a question at a press conference (and gets a surprising answer).

Having read them back to back, I couldn't help comparing The Accidental Buddhist and Dharma Punx. I enjoyed this book more, probably because it doesn't have all the punk and addiction recovery stuff clouding up the story (this book is focused on the topic, whereas Dharma Punx is more of an autobiography). Moore was around my age when he wrote this and he grew up Catholic (not bearing a grudge against the Church like so many do), so I could identify with him.*

It speaks to the breadth of Buddhism in America that even though Moore and Levine explore a variety of paths, pretty much the only intersection of their experiences is the Dalai Lama. Even then, Levine sees him in India, not Indiana.

* This observation is somewhat revealing to me. Levine is about my age while Moore is 13 years older, but Moore was closer to my age when he wrote this whereas Levine was around 30. So I find myself identifying with someone writing at my current age more than someone in my generation writing at a different age. I didn't expect that.

Dharma Punx by Noah Levine

After a few books mostly about Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, I wanted to read about Eastern religions. This memoir describes addiction recovery through spiritual awakening. Levine's father Stephen is somewhat famous in American Buddhist circles, but punk rocker Noah dismisses that "hippie stuff" until drugs, alcohol, and attempted suicide bring him to a point of desperation where he is open to meditation. This leads him on a spiritual journey, and eventually he becomes a Buddhist teacher.

I really like parts of this book though sometimes it reminds me of a dozen other recovery memoirs I've read (perhaps that means I've read too many). I don't quite "get" the fusion of Buddhism and the punk rock ethos, but I guess it's important to Levine that Buddhism didn't make him into some kind of New Age pussy (I was never much into West Coast punk; maybe that's the problem). His travels throughout Asia are very interesting, however, as is the way he synthesizes various Buddhist traditions into something that works for him (a concept quite foreign to someone raised in theologically rigid Catholicism).

I don't know whether it's the Buddhism or the "recovery theology", but sometimes I can't connect with Levine. He says a lot of things that just don't resonate with me—not things that I think are wrong, just things that don't work for me personally. Maybe he would tell me I need to find my own path. This book makes me want to experiment with the "mindfulness meditation" that changed Levine's life, and he thoughtfully includes instructions at the end of the book. Alas I haven't actually tried it yet.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Poorly Coordinated

Today I was walking behind a guy whose gym shoes matched the bottle of Gatorade he was carrying. Not a good look, no matter which flavor.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Pocket Guide to the Bible: A Little Book About the Big Book by Jason Boyett

Boyett has written a series of religious yet humorous pocket guides about the Bible, the saints, the apocalypse, and the afterlife. I have several of them, and we'll get to another one shortly.

In this book, Boyett offers a Cliffs Notes of the most widely read book in history. He starts out with a glossary, a "cast of characters", and "what happens" in each book from Genesis to Revelation. Then he goes through the history of the creation and translation of the Bible, followed by a comparison of several passages in different translations. Finally, he runs through a bunch of lists such as "Seven Lesser-Known Bible Stories that Probably Shouldn't Be Told to Children" (which includes one of my personal favorites, the story about David giving King Saul 200 Philistine foreskins in order to marry the king's daughter—I pity the poor intern who had to verify the count!).

I couldn't find a nihil obstat anywhere, but the Pocket Guide is fun to read. Boyett incorporates jokes and sarcasm without crossing the line into irreverence. The chapters chronicling and comparing the translations drag on a bit though, even more so because I was reading this book aloud to my wife.

I suppose it says something terrible about me that I've read several books derived from the Bible over the past few years without reading the Bible itself.*

* As I've mentioned before, I did try to read the whole Bible once about 15 years ago, but I got bogged down somewhere in Isaiah. So most Christians would say I quit before I got to the important part. In my defense, reading the Bible isn't nearly as important to most Catholics as it is to Protestants.

Lord Save Us from Your Followers: Why is the Gospel of Love Dividing Society? by Dan Merchant

This book is the companion to a film made by the author (naturally, I haven't seen it). Merchant interviews Al Franken, Rick Santorum, and numerous random people on the streets about Christianity and politics in American society. As expressed in the subtitle, Merchant wonders how so many Christians have strayed from or even inverted what Jesus taught*, and he wonders how to change that.

Toward the end of the book, he tries to make amends for the damage religion has done and puts his faith into action. First he confronts church mistreatment of gays by setting up a confession booth at Gay Pride Northwest. Like in Donald Miller's Blue Like Jazz**, Merchant isn't accepting confessions—he is confessing the sins of Christians against the GLBT community and apologizing. Then he helps a church group that feeds the poor and washes their feet as Jesus would do—not preaching to them, just helping them.

This book turned out to be much more Christian than I expected, but that actually made it better.*** Anyone can point fingers at another group, but to acknowledge one's own failures within that group is much more difficult and more interesting. So even though it wasn't what I expected, I enjoyed Lord Save Us from Your Followers.

* Most incredible to me is the "prosperity gospel" which basically says people get rich because God rewards them for being good, which is pretty much the opposite of the whole "it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God" thing.

** Merchant fully credits Miller and his friend Tony Kriz (Merchant interviews Kriz about it) for the idea. In Blue Like Jazz, the two set up a confession booth at Reed College, a school with a secular reputation, and confessed to those who entered. I read that book a few years ago and enjoyed it much more than I thought I would.

*** I guess I didn't read too closely in the bookstore. My excuse is that the book cost me only 50 cents in the Half Price Books clearance section.

Book                        DVD                        Instant Video

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures by Nicholas Wade

It's the second week of April and I haven't written about a single book I read in March yet. So here we go...

I bought this at Borders in Beverly during the bankruptcy sale. Local residents fought to keep the store open by protesting and petitioning and whatever other futile means they thought could influence the dying corporation. Of course, in retrospect their efforts became pointless when the entire chain imploded a few months later. Anyway, this was only my second visit to the store since I rarely venture deep into the South Side.* I picked out some unusual titles that day, The Faith Instinct among them.

Wade asserts that religion is a product of evolution and natural selection. His argument is based on the ubiquity and fundamental similarities of religions worldwide as well as their benefits to the survival of the species: religion gives societies structure, a moral framework, and community support. Most of this is covered early in the book, and then the author examines Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in depth. He also takes down Richard Dawkins a couple of times, much to my amusement.** Wade does not argue for or against the existence of God, and the answer is irrelevant in this context.

I had a hard time reading this book, which took about two weeks (considering I finished a book every three days last year, that's a long time for a book under 300 pages). My mind wandered often, pondering the concepts in the book as well as ruminating on my own faith or lack thereof. I have read several reviews likening The Faith Instinct to The Evolution of God by Robert Wright, another book that took me a long time to read as I became lost in thought (of the two, by the way, The Faith Instinct is much more about evolution in the Darwinian sense).

I don't really understand how the in-depth discussion of the origins of Western religions belongs in this book. I found it very interesting and learned a lot, but it seems tangential at best. If one is discussing religion as a part of evolution, the past few thousand years is a pretty short time period. Wade's informative analysis of the similarities among primitive religions seems more relevant to the survival of the species.

* I don't count driving the expressways since those are just ways to get somewhere else. Unlike many North Siders, however, I do acknowledge that the South Side exists and is in fact much larger than the North Side, even if it lags behind in the critical fratboy-bars-per-capita metric.

** I have nothing against atheists, but Richard Dawkins strikes me as kind of a dick, pun intended. That goes double for Christopher Hitchens but without the pun (evangelical atheists annoy me even more than evangelical Christians). Dawkins doesn't think religion is evolutionary, but Wade points out that he is biased by his hatred for religion. Also Dawkins claims that being a moral atheist proves that religion is unnecessary (an argument I've heard from others), but this ignores the role of religion in shaping and enforcing those morals.

Bastard of the Day

Word came out yesterday afternoon that JCPenney CEO Ron Johnson was fired after destroying the company in a misguided effort to reinvent it. The bastard will be remembered by many as the guy who revamped the store's pricing strategy, alienating vast numbers of former Penney shoppers.

Some say you shouldn't kick a man while he's down (at least as down as one can be after raking in $55 million in 17 months). Well, I say, "Fuck you, Ron Johnson. Fuck you on Earth and fuck you in Hell."

My mom (who surely disapproves of the language in the previous paragraph just as surely as she agrees with the sentiment) worked at JCPenney for more than 35 years. Her performance reviews were excellent, and she believed in the company enough to stay through its ups and downs despite the lousy pay. She just wanted to put in a few more years there before retiring. Then along came Ron Johnson.

Always the "company woman"—and with the optimism of a lifelong Chicago Cubs fan—at first my mom talked excitedly about the new CEO's plans to return JCPenney to its former glory. Everyday low prices, no more coupons, "stores within a store", new brands, and so forth. But the former Apple retail head was not the guru some made him out to be. Longtime JCPenney customers didn't like the changes, and not enough new customers replaced them. Following ever more dismal sales figures (same-store sales down 31% in the most recent quarter), JCPenney cut costs recently by eliminating the positions of many of its most experienced and knowledgeable employees.

Unfortunately the bastard Ron Johnson's termination came too late to save my mom's job.