Thursday, March 15, 2012

Lagalog's Bookshelf: My First Quarter Reads

Books Read Montage
My reading list/montage so far this 2012
After a busy December, I was sidelined by sciatica for the whole of January and most of February (mainly due to return trips to the hospital and being under medication, something that continues to this day).  For someone who spends most of his working hours sitting down in front of his Mac, this is a real bummer.  But one upside of this is finding more time to read.  Perhaps, it's a subconscious resolution to myself to read more often but sometimes, work and other commitments get in the way of reading.

I guess I'm off to a good start as I've gone through 8 1/2 books (I'm halfway through my 9th, Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman's "Long Way Round" chronicles as I write this) in just 10 weeks into 2012.  Not that I'm always racing against the clock but as a lifelong bookworm, at times I just can't put a book down even if it's 3 or 4 in the morning.  Anyway, here are my short, personal impressions of the books I've read so far this year.  Please take note of the disclaimer "personal impression" for I profess I'm no literary heavyweight, just a book buff who loves to read.  By the way, most of the books I'm featuring here came from Booksale save for the hardbound copy of Jon Krakauer's "Where Men Win Glory" which a friend got for me for P150 at a National Bookstore sale (who says reading has to be expensive?)  So here goes...

Three Cups of Tea (Penguin Books, 2007) - This controversial account of mountaineer-turned-humanitarian, Greg Mortenson, by journalist David Oliver Relin is a lesson in how life can turn a failure to success.  Though often sounding like a fawning tribute to Mortenson, there were insights on how hard life can be in the highlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan but how persistence can make things happen so that schools can be built in some of the most remote places on earth.  From failing to scale K-2 and getting lost on the way down, Mortenson literally stumbles to Korphe and found his life's calling: to bring education and use it as a tool to combat terrorism.  

The book became a subject of heated controversy when acclaimed mountaineer and author, Jon Krakauer, alleged that some accounts in the books are fictitious and that Mortenson mismanaged CAI funds.  True or not, the book offers an interesting solution to terrorism through education.  Interestingly, the book mentioned that Mortenson visited the International Rice Research Institute here in the Philippines to learn about macro businesses.  Most memorable blurb: "The first time you share tea with a Balti, you are a stranger. The second time you take tea, you are an honored guest. The third time you share a cup of tea, you become family."

The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios (Houghton Mifflin, 2004 ) - I became a Yan Martel fan after I read "The Life of Pi".  This book came a decade before he found fame post-Pi and while not uninteresting, it showed how far he has come in ten years.  The premise of the main novella is interesting enough -- a man infected by aids through blood transfusion is kept animated and alive by his mentor by a mentally-rigorous game of inventing the story of the Roccamatio family of Helsinki, Finland, with each chapter linked to a 20th century event.  I find the first of the short stories more absorbing though, "The Time I Heard the Private Donald J Rankin String Concerto with One Discordant Violin, by the American Composer John Morton."   It's about the story of how a Canadian student's life was changed when he stumbled upon a concert in a condemned Washington theater, found resonance in the music, and later discovered that the talented composer has a day (or night) job as a janitor in a bank.

Weather Whys (Perigree Trade, 2010) - Was surprise to see this quite recently-published book in the bargain bins of Booksale but after reading (or was it patiently wading through?) two chapters, I can see why.   Written by Paul Yeager, managing editor of Accuweather and a freelance writer, the book attempts to be interesting (the weather oddities are, the writing style is not) but quickly declines after a chapter or two.  Yeager's attempts at humor are at times strained (like a stand-up comic caught laughing alone at his own joke), the writing style fails to flow smoothly.  I appreciate the attempt to make talking about the weather engaging though.  Nice premise that could've worked with a better writer.  Maybe this weatherman should stick to writing weather reports instead.

127 Hours - Between A Rock and A Hard Place (Simon & Schuster, 2010 Reprint) - Perhaps the movie was more popular than the book (and Danny Boyle's translation of this first person account to the big screen was a riveting piece of filmmaking) but this deserves a reading.  The book allows one to glean what's going through Aron Ralston's mind during those 127 hours in the Utah canyons, trapped by a 800 pound boulder by a freak accident.  If the movie's amputation scene made you weak-kneed (maybe, even grossed-out), the narrative will allow you to read exactly how Aron first contemplated it, then actually perform the DIY surgery as if seeing the ligaments, muscles and bones separate firsthand.  But gross details aside, the book is an engaging read, the chapters alternating between the past and the present, history and future plans.  Aron's writing style is honest but never overly-brash, free-flowing and riveting.  Though we all know the ending, this one makes for excellent reading, a study of how 127 hours can become a lifetime of coming to terms with life and death, and everything in between.

The Places In Between (Harvest Book, 2006) - This travel book takes the expression, "going off the beaten track" to the other extreme, the account of Scottish author, Rory Stewart's solo walk across Afghanistan, starting in Herat and ending in Kabul.   Setting off in the middle of winter and burdened by the post-9/11 events, Stewart braved the dangers of being a Westerner in these parts, relying on the innate goodness of strangers he met along the way and meeting a dog who shared part of his journey.  It's easy to be polarized by Stewart's feat (Was he very brave or plain foolish in attempting such a feat?  Naive or good-at-heart in believing in the power of the kindness of strangers in a strange land far removed, culturally and spiritually, from where he comes from?).  Along the way, he saw things, experienced things that probably would never be seen again (The Buddhas of Bamyan, for one, which were destroyed by the Taliban).  The ending (I won't spoil the experience by revealing it) is bittersweet and I walked away, wistful yet richer for reading this book.

The Best American Travel Writing 2002 (Houghton Mifflin, 2002) - Edited by Frances Mayes, best known for her novel,  "Under the Tuscan Sun," this edition is the third in the yearly compilations of nothing but the best in travel writing in the U.S.   I have found gems in each edition and this one is no different.  There's delicious sarcasm in David Sedari's "The Man Upstairs" (about feigning control over flight delays), mad clarity in Michael Finkel's "Thirteen Ways of Looking At A Void" (about Tenere, the 154,440 square mile sea of sand at the center of the Sahara) and a not-so-strange fascination with getting lost in Laurence Gonzales' "Beyond the End of the Road."  I already own five editions of this compilation and even just for these, I'm eternally grateful to Booksale.

The Perfect Storm (W.W. Norton & Company, 1997) - Like 127 Hours, the movie may be more popular but this book by acclaimed author, Sebastian Junger, is an excellent piece of writing.  You got to admire Junger's steadfast commitment to stick to the facts and not to embellish the accounts of the survivors' friends, loved ones and acquaintances to make the story cohesive and interesting.  The reconstruction of the events make for riveting, if often, poignant reading.  The once-in-a-hundred-years storm (dubbed the perfect storm) of 1991 forms the backdrop of the story but the stories of the swordfish fishermen embroiled in the tempest provided the human interest that keeps the reader flipping the pages.

Where Men Win Glory (DoubleDay, 2009) - I'm a big fan of Jon Krakauer, an adulation that started when I stumbled copies of "Into the Wild" and "Into Thin Air" in Booksale as well as articles he has written for Outside Magazine.  He has a very keen eye for details and a uncanny ability to put the reader right in the heart of the story, making the characters come alive.  In "Where Men Win Glory," you could feel for Pat Tillman, the NFL star who walked away from his multi-million contract to serve in the post-9/11 military and was betrayed by the government in a cover-up for his death by friendly fire and as a propaganda tool to advance the military action in Afghanistan.  Jon examines Pat's convictions and scruples, his legend and humanity, with earnest eloquence.  Most memorable blurb:  "War is always about betrayal, betrayal of the young by the old, of idealists by cynics and of troops by politicians" by Chris Hedges, "A Culture of Atrocity".

The Long Way Round (Time-Warner, 2004) - I've watched the NatGeo series "The Long Way Down" with fascination even if I don't ride bikes.  Wouldn't it be a blast to go all the way round the world, crossing boundaries and cultures?  Well, being celebrities, Ewan and Charley probably had it easy finding sponsors like BMW and production companies to bankroll the trip, with National Geographic picking up the series for airing.  Lucky dudes.  Well, reading Ewan McGregor's and Charley Boorman's first-person accounts, I changed my mind.  Ewan may have lucked it out when George Lucas took pity on him for keeping taking out advances for his role in the first Star Wars prequel by giving him a Ducati 748 but "The Long Way Down" was not handed down to them on a silver platter, not by a long stretch.   The book spells out what transpired behind the scenes, from the painful separation from their families, the constant arguments between the camping-loving Ewan and the camping-averse Charley, to the wistful longing for the memories of the trip.  It seems celebrity does not immune oneself from jaded border customs patrols, arduous rides on all conceivable kinds of terrain and the more-than-occasional travel blues. Anyway, the book is written with no pretenses which makes for a surprisingly good read.

Attribution:  All book covers culled from the Internet;  all copyrights reserved by the authors and their respective publishing companies.


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