Does anyone else think this guy looks like William Forsythe?

This month, I searched the Flickr commons for photos with the keyword word “Ocean.”  Here’s what I found.

Sponge diver John Gonatos: Tarpon Springs, Florida
Sponge diver John Gonatos: Tarpon Springs, Florida

Or Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the Comedian in Watchmen?

The Lost Continent

The Lost Continent
The Lost Continent

The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America
by Bill Bryson

The Lost Continent is one of Bryson’s earlier (or earliest?) travel books, written in the late 1980s by an American ex-pat who returned from Britain to tour around America for two months, driving on back roads and staying in small towns.  The book brims with tight descriptions of small towns, amusing anecdotes of experiences therein, and a sharp wit that sometimes veers too far toward cruel.  A few thoughts:

  • The book gives plenty of space to memoir writing, amusing and honorable recollections of road trips taken by Bryson’s family when he was a child.  The nostalgia runs deep in these sections, even as he’s lovingly scathing of his father’s penury and tendency to get lost.  These sections feel like a Jean Shepard novel.
  • Bryson’s descriptions of the locals living in these small towns leans too heavily toward vicious.  As much as he likes the hamlets located on deep byways and backwaters, he doesn’t show much kindness or empathy for the people who live there.  He’s particularly mean about the obese, a word he uses as an insult throughout, and often follows with an implied or overt stupid.  It’s the book’s biggest failing, and something he tempers in his later books.
  • But he also tells admirable stories about some of the people he encounters, and admires many of the small towns with a zest that makes you as ambiguous about the vast U.S. as he is.
  • And Bryson turns the scalpel on himself quite willingly, writing in a self-deprecating way that undoes some of the viciousness he points at others.
  • Having recently read Made in America, I can see many of the interests in Bryson’s travel writing that will later show up in his histories.  In particular, the discussion of the Burma Shave signs echoed nicely in that later book.

We read this book while we were driving across the country on our 4357 mile road trip, and it fit quite nicely.  If you can ignore the insulting way Bryson writes about some of the people in the towns he encounters, you’ll find this gem of his early writing quite enjoyable.  If you haven’t read any of his travel books, though, I recommend In A Sunburned Country and A Walk in the Woods much more highly.

Tweets from 2013-07-22 to 2013-07-28

The Rubber Band

The Rubber Band
The Rubber Band

The Rubber Band
By Nero Wolfe

Good ol’ Nero Wolfe, always Johnny-in-the-Brownstone when death comes a’ callin.  The Rubber Band stands with the other Rex Stout novels as a fine entry in the adventures of the most armchair of detectives and his hop-to-it man, Archie Goodwin.  The case begins with a stolen lot of $20,000 and quickly escalates to long-lost royal heirs, a secret pact from long ago, a lovely dame in trouble, and murder.  And let’s not forget Inspector Cramer chompin’ on his cigar and fuming at the injustice of it all.  It’s all classic Wolfe.  A few quick thoughts about this particular tale:

  • There was a bit too much overlapping coincidence in this novel for my taste.  I prefer my stories a bit more purposeful.
  • I liked the antagonism between Archie and one of the free-lancers that Wolfe employs occasionally – Archie resented that the man wanted Archie’s job, but in the end Goodwin’s wit and quick thinking reaffirm his utility to Wolfe.
  • The title for the novel comes out early and has a close connection to the tale, unlike some of the other stories I’ve read.

Like your favorite pizza, Nero Wolfe stories are good each time you read them but not particularly noteworthy from one to the next.  But you sure enjoy it while you’re eating.

Made in America

Made in America
Made in America

Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States
by  Bill Bryson

Bryson’s book is a compendium of facts and ideas about the English language as it developed in the United States, as viewed through lenses ground out of topics from every corner of American culture.  In some ways, it reads like a cast-off from some previous books, as if he took the bulk of the extra notes from The Mother Tongue and dropped in the historical notes he uncovered in writing his travel books about America.

It’s an enjoyable read, though one best interspersed with other books exploring a variety of topics.  If it’s your only book, it may get a bit too list-y for you.  A few thoughts:

  • The section about advertising language was my favorite, as Bryson winnowed from the vault of commercial print in America many fine and amusing turns of phrase.
  • The book’s military and presidential history is quite thorough – in some ways this will stick with me better than will many of the language bits I picked up.
  • As with many of his non-travel books, Bryson’s trademark humor was not as strong in the book.  He still had a few amusing asides, but I don’t think I ever laughed out loud while reading this one.
  • I was particularly amused by the early etymological sections that traced many phrases used only in America to British roots, then detailed how the Brits liked to think us uncouth for using them.  Snobby Brits.
  • I was reminded throughout the book of Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit, which features a long section in America during which the Americans are depicted most viciously and are proud of those attributes given them by the author.   In particular, I was reminded of the American habit of eating meat with a knife, the fork being a rather late addition to the American table with the consequence that we hold our forks in our left hands when cutting and then transfer them to the right, something apparently absent from European habits.

Overall, it’s an entertaining book, but a bit too long for continuous reading, and not something you should dive right into if you’ve recently read The Mother Tongue or THAT OTHER BOOK.

Bryson’s book is a compendium of facts and ideas about the English language as it developed in the United States, as viewed through lenses ground out of topics from every corner of American culture.  In some ways, it reads like a cast-off from some previous books, as if he took the bulk of the extra notes from The Mother Tongue and dropped in the historical notes he uncovered in writing his travel books about America. 

It’s an entertaining read, though one best interspersed with other books exploring a variety of topics.  If it’s your only book, it may get a bit too list-y for you.  A few thoughts:

·         The section about advertising language was my favorite, as Bryson winnowed from the vault of commercial print in America many fine and amusing turns of phrase.

·         The book’s military and presidential history is quite thorough – in some ways this will stick with me better than will many of the language bits I picked up.

·         As with many of his non-travel books, Bryson’s trademark humor was not as strong in the book.  He still had a few amusing asides, but I don’t think I ever laughed out loud while reading this one.

·         I was particularly amused by the early etymological sections that traced many phrases used only in America to British roots, then detailed how the Brits liked to think us uncouth for using them.  Snobby Brits.

·         I was reminded throughout the book of Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit, which features a long section in America during which the Americans are depicted most viciously and are proud of those attributes given them by the author.   In particular, I was reminded of the American habit of eating meat with a knife, the fork being a rather late addition to the American table with the consequence that we hold our forks in our left hands when cutting and then transfer them to the right, something apparently absent from European habits.

Overall, it’s an entertaining book, but a bit too long for continuous reading, and not something you should dive right into if you’ve recently read The Mother Tongue or THAT OTHER BOOK.

Sad Robot Stories: A Novella

Sad Robot Stories
Sad Robot Stories

Sad Robot Stories: a novella
by Mason Johnson

The title of this novella reads ambiguously.  Is this a collection of stories about a sad robot, or are these sad stories about a robot or robots? As my father used to say–Yes.

Johnson’s book follows the adventures of Robot, an outsider among his own kind, as he considers the nature of life, the universe, and everything.  It’s a beautiful little gem of a book, and I’d hate to tarnish your reading of it by divulging much more of the plot than I already have.  That said, a few thoughts:

  • As with many outsider stories, Johnson uses Robot to explore moments of the human condition, bringing these scenes to life with a rare flair for language and imagery and lovely turns of phrase.
  • The story is simple without being simplistic, and involves just enough change as it moves along to keep itself going.  I wondered, moving into the second main sequence of the tale, what could be left to tell, but was glad to see what arrived.
  • Johnson’s characters are sharp and believable, with Mike and Sally getting the bulk of the attention after Robot.  The end of the tale doesn’t hold up quite as well as the beginning in this regard, but still works.
  • The rise of spiritual questions in the end of the novella works very well too, asking some basic questions about what it means to be alive, to help others live, and to seek one’s fortune in the world.
  • This definitely falls into the category of “literature” or “soft SF,” and won’t reward a hard-sf reading, though it doesn’t neglect technology so much that it becomes irritating or nonsensical.  It just doesn’t attend to questions of “how” very closely.

You’d be well-rewarded to pick up a copy of Sad Robot Stories, which will be distributed as an e-book under a CC license or will be available in print very soon.  It’s a lovely tale that dwells on the line between literature and science-fiction, and pushes you to think a bit more about who you are.

Full disclosure: Mason Johnson was one of my students when he was in college, and I received a review copy of this book for free. 

Update: If you’d like to order the book, you can order a copy here or download the free ebook here: http://cclapcenter.com/sadrobot

I hate rush hour commuting

This month, I searched the Flickr commons for photos with the keyword word “Ocean.”  Here’s what I found.

Harbour and herring fleet, Scarborough, Yorkshire
Harbour and herring fleet, Scarborough, Yorkshire

Tweets from 2013-07-15 to 2013-07-21

Where’s my phonograph?

This month, I searched the Flickr commons for photos with the keyword word “Ocean.”  Here’s what I found.

Paris Exposition: ship, Paris, France, 1900
Paris Exposition: ship, Paris, France, 1900

Server maintenance

It looks like Dreamhost will be moving my site to a new server in their massive server facility on the moon this Thursday, 18 July.  We’re warned that there may be some slow-time or down-time as the move happens.

You’ve been warned.

Travel Interregnum

In case you haven’t been keeping up with my occasional tweets and have visited this blog, daily, gasping at its unprofessional lack of new content, I’ll spell it out for you — we’ve got a lot of travel going on this month.  We took a long road trip in the first half of the month, are home for four days, and then are traveling again for the second half of the month.  So not much time for blogging.

And all you Wet Bandits out there using Facebook and Twitter to scope my house out — we have a vicious house sitter so the place isn’t empty.  HA.

Statistical summary from the great 2013 Riley Road Trip we just finished:

  • 15 days
  • 4657 miles
  • 10 states driven through (Illinois, Iowa, South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Washington, … North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin)
  • 3 provinces driven through (British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan)
  • 6 sights seen (Wall Drug, Mt. Rushmore, Little Big Horn, Priest Lake – ID, Banff National Park – Canada, Lake Wissota State Park – WI)
  • 310 meters-thick of glacial ice walked upon
  • 2.5 audio books read

Pictures and narratives to follow later.

I’ll try to get a couple posts queued up before our next trip so you get more than the occasional weird old photo here.

Tweets from 2013-07-08 to 2013-07-14

Seating in coach is just getting ridiculous

This month, I searched the Flickr commons for photos with the keyword word “Ocean.”  Here’s what I found.

Ship Garthsnaid, ca 1920s
Ship Garthsnaid, ca 1920s

Tweets from 2013-07-01 to 2013-07-07

“Get there early,” they said. “It will be hard to find a seat,” they said.

This month, I searched the Flickr commons for photos with the keyword word “Ocean.”  Here’s what I found.

La Côte Basque, Biarritz, Pyrénées-Atlantiques
La Côte Basque, Biarritz, Pyrénées-Atlantiques