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book review: ultralight bike touring and bikepacking

My girlfriend and I are thinking about bike-touring more. Since we’re librarians that tends to mean research. One of the books that has thus found its way to our coffee table is Justin Lichter and Justin Kline’s guidebook Ultralight Bike Touring and Bikepacking.

The idea of going on a bike trip with pretty minimal stuff is very very appealing to me. I don’t like schlepping non-book stuff around and I like going places. So I’ve been reading a lot of blogposts about this kind of stuff, and not a lot was completely new. The bike models they talked about and the wheel-sizes and the companies making the bike equipment were all things I was familiar with. One of the people from Rivendell bikes was in here, which I appreciated since they make machines I dearly covet (my present to myself when I hit 40 will probably be a ridiculously pretty bike like a Hunqapillar).

One thing that made this book better than the blogposts was that it felt a little less manipulated for ad-dollar page-views. I mean, the writers talked about specific products probably about the same amount that a bike-blogger does but it feels different in pages somehow. And the fact that they have contributors talking about foraging for food on the side of your trail and taking less stuff makes me get my hackles up a bit less when they’re praising certain ultralight tarps (’cause tents are heavy luxuries).

There’s a lot in this book that could be ridiculous to follow along with too closely. It’d be easy to work too hard at being some sort of perfect ultralight gram-counter, and yeah it’s promoting a certain kind of consumerism that’s trying to be something more than it is. But in general, I liked this book, especially in the practical aspects of what to pack in your frame bag and what to sling behind your seat. And they say Tajikistan would be a good place to ride it.

book review: pre-holiday 2013 roundup

I suppose I’m getting used to the fact that this is less a book review blog than it used to be. I’m sorry. Maybe I’ll be more diligent in 2014? Regardless, here’s what I’ve read (for a certain value of) recently.

  • Mendoza in Hollywood by Kage Baker. A sequel to In the Garden of Iden, but there’s another book in between that I haven’t read. I like these books because they’re all about the historical anachronism. This one wasn’t as tragic as the first though.
  • Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut. This was the only Vonnegut novel I hadn’t read when I started Unstuck in Time, Gregory Sumner’s book about Vonnegut’s novels. I liked Galapagos more than I’d expect to like a book about inbreeding, stupidity and evolution. Which means I liked it a lot. Unstuck in Time was a decent bit of biography around what was going on in Vonnegut’s life when he was writing the novels, which, fine, whatever, but was also a really good Cole’s Notes kind of refresher on what was actually in those books. It tickled my Vonnegut itch which means I can keep tackling new books in my to read pile rather than rereading the ones I know I love.
  • Paintwork by Tim Maughan. Three short stories set in a near future SF world. I liked the Cuban giant fighting robots story the best, though they were all fine stories in a Strossian vein.
  • Battling Boy by Paul Pope. A boy-god is sent to Earthish to fight monsters as part of his adolescent trials. I love Pope’s art, but wish the story was less of a first chapter and more complete. Selah.
  • The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater. This is the second book in The Raven Boys cycle, and this one I liked a little less than the first because it was such a continuation, instead of introducing us to characters and situations. Yes, this almost directly contradicts my issue with Battling Boy. Whatever. I quote Whitman at you.
  • The Crusades Through Arab Eyes by Amin Maalouf. I am not a history buff, but a friend who is one recommended this and I loved it. Part of the appeal is that I know shit about the crusades from the European perspective since my education wasn’t really big on celebrating wars of any sort, so now all I know about them beyond very basic Indiana Jones stuff is from this book about bickering Seljuk princes and the politics between Damascus, Aleppo and Baghdad. Neat stuff did happen in the past (and it totally gave me a lot more context for when I play Crusader Kings, which I enjoy anyway).
  • Hawkeye: My Life as a Weapon and Little Hits by Matt Fraction & a bunch of artists. These are good gritty-ish Marvel crime comics about what Hawkguy does when he’s not being an Avenger. Funny and clever. I read this because Fraction is probably my favourite superhero writer these days. The Pizza the Dog issue in Little Hits is the best though. The best.
  • The Land Across by Gene Wolfe. This one is about an American travel writer going to a strange European dictatorship. It feels like it’s going to be a Kafka pastiche but then it turns into a ghost story and noir secret police detective tale. It’s very weird and I really liked it. I like The City & the City better, mind you, but not by much.
  • Battle Bunny by John Scieszka, Mac Barnett & Matthew Myers. This is a picturebook a well-meaning grandma has given to a little boy about a Birthday Bunny that the boy has repurposed into the tale of thwarting Battle Bunny and his evil world domination plans. I love love love the idea of this so much. That said, I’m a little nonplussed by the gender role implications that boys have to turn everything into violent confrontation for it to be interesting and wish that the protagonist (who is the person defacing the “original” book) was a girl. I might have to write separately about this book.
  • Plow the Bones by Douglas F. Warrick. This collection of mostly dark SF short stories was excellent. The writing in its density and consideration of the implications of the premises reminded me of Ted Chiang. Really really good stuff.
  • Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler. This is a dystopian novel that’s far more realistic than most. Economic downturn has forced communities to hunker down and maybe hope for the best, while drugs and deprivation force people who have even less to descend upon the people who have a little bit. And in all this, a teenage girl with overdeveloped empathy (she feels injuries in other people) is building her own way of seeing and being in the world. It’s hard to take a lot of other fanciful dystopia at all seriously when this was done so well. I’m kind of ashamed it took me so long to read this classic.

Phew. I’m leaving out a few that I’ll try and do separate writeups for.

book review: white fever

White Fever: A Journey to the Frozen Heart of Siberia isn’t exactly the travelogue I expected from reading the back blurb. It’s about a Polish journalist, Jacek Hugo-Bader, who travels through Siberia in a truck in the middle of winter, but that aspect of the trip only appears in the first and last chapters of the book. The rest is arranged more topically about the people he interviews in these Siberian communities.

Once the realization that this wasn’t going to be a wacky journey tale set in, I quite enjoyed the book. Hugo-Bader talks to AIDS patients, hip-hop wannabes, shamans, religious communities and alcoholics. His european perspective on the Siberian aboriginal people gives those sections quite a different tone from the way you’d write about them in North America. Not better, but it was different enough to make me notice and try to analyze why it felt so foreign. Would it have felt more natural if I was a white Canadian forty years ago? Maybe, but maybe that’s just me thinking these Eastern Europeans are a bunch of assholes.

Anyway, problematic aboriginal discussions aside, I liked the book for its alternative perspective on the parts of Russia that don’t make the news. I’ll talk to my Russologist friends about how accurate this Polish journalist was, but for a non-expert it was an interesting read.

book review: flight from neveryon

Reading a Samuel R. Delany book is something I do very slowly. I’ve learned it’s necessary to really think about what’s on the page to appreciate his work. I don’t know if I got that when I first read Dhalgren a decade ago, but I’ve got it down now.

Flight From Nevèrÿon is Delany’s third and final sword & sorcery book. There are three parts to the book. The first is about a young smuggler who collects stories of Gorgik the Liberator. He has a sexual encounter with a man who might be Gorgik’s companion. He meets more people who might be Gorgik or know Gorgik and all of them disappoint as new versions of stories get recreated in the smuggler’s mind. It’s very much a story about shifting perception. Then there’s the Mummer’s Tale, which is also about making up stories and performing them and the ways the subjects of those stories are represented.

But the big thing about this book is the story of Nevèrÿon mixed with the story of AIDS in New York in the early 1980s and the story of creating this story. There’s a plague in Nevèrÿon and a plague in New York and no one knows what is happening. The numbered sections fragment everything into this multifaceted beast of a story that seems like it could have no possible ending. It’s very different from most sword & sorcery.

I’d have to think much more carefully about it to be able to do the book justice in my own analysis/response, but for now I’ll just say it does reward slow reading. If you have the time, it’s a great book about power and sex and story.

book review: the great railway bazaar

I read The Great Railway Bazaar long after reading Paul Theroux’s book about revisiting his journey thirty years later. I liked the revisiting book better, possibly because the society Theroux was writing to in the 2000s is more like the society I think of myself a part of.

The parts I liked were the parts about the trains themselves. I too am a lover of trains and riding on them and could gladly let riding a train be the entirety of a vacation. I also appreciated the Vietnam chapters because this was written so close to the war and things felt weird and on edge there. But this book had more than just riding on trains. It had a lot of grand statements by a white guy about the cultures he was passing through. I can see a lot of similarity to myself there too, and, well, it was kind of ugly.

Theorux makes all these sweeping statements that seem to have no compassion for any of his subjects. I didn’t get that feeling from his book as an older man. Maybe I’ve just heard enough of what people who look like me have to say about travelling through Asia. And maybe that’s why I liked the Vietnam sections; his compassionless comments were directed at Americans and other foreigners instead of the people whose homes he was cruising through.

book review: the man within my head

The Man Within My Head is Pico Iyer’s book about Graham Greene. I think it would have had more of an impact on me if I had read more than a couple of Graham Greene books in my life. But Iyer writes about travel and globalism in a way that speaks very well to me, and a big part of this book was about how certain writers get in your head. I guess I’m saying I understood what he was talking about even though I don’t feel the same way about Greene.

The book was filled with stories about growing up in English boarding schools and how they were trained to spread Empire, but also about Iyer’s travel, and about California wildfires taking his homes, and looking for a father, and the way Greene wrote about the goodness in fallen priests. I liked it, but it wasn’t the same kind of thrill as something like Sun After Dark.