2014 Europe Trip, Part I

We recently took a trip to Europe, and we did so much in two mere weeks that the task of writing about it has been daunting. We visited three countries and seven cities, heard four or five different languages, tried dozens of different beers and foods and saw a million beautiful things. It was exhausting, but it was also really cool.

It was Nathan’s 30th birthday and his mom’s 50th this September, so what better way to celebrate a couple of milestone September birthdays than to travel to Oktoberfest? That was my idea, and i’m still surprised we went for it.

So first the four of us flew to Brussels together, where we stayed in an apartment for two nights. It had a great view of the Montgomery fountain and the Cinquantenaire. In Brussels we visited the Cantillon brewery and had several of their fabulous lambic beers, ate wonderful foods including pastries, waffles, mussels (of course), beef stew, Croatian food, coconut ice cream and other delectables, and saw the Grand Place and the Manneken Pis. Brussels is a bigger city than i’d realized, and there appeared to be much more to do there than we were even able to scratch the surface of in two days.




Next Lillian and Tom headed to Germany while Nathan and I continued to explore Belgium. We drove to Ghent where we had what was probably the most frustrating day of our lives trying unsuccessfully to drive around to elusive eateries, but we made the best of it in the evening by exploring the astounding Gothic cathedrals there and having some good beer and food.

Bruges was our next stop. We found it to be relatively quiet and relaxed, and we had fun there touring the shops and the brewery and walking along the canals. We paid a few Euros to take a gander at a Michelangelo sculpture in a church there, and we had a good dinner of tapas at a place that we had to get to by sidling down an alleyway that was barely wider than ourselves.

We also visited some distant cousins of mine who live in Bruges. My Grandmother’s cousin and his kids & grandkids are a close-knit and very welcoming bunch, and it was fascinating to chat with them for a few hours about some of the differences in our cultures. Everyone we encountered in Europe spoke at least a little English, by the way, and many seemed to be quite fluent.

Poperinge was our next stop. We had originally planned to go there in order to visit the Westvleteren monastery (brewery), but it happened to be closed while we were there. Fortunately, however, there was a hops festival going on that only happens every three years. So that was odd luck on both counts. The whole town was decorated with hop vines, and the festival offered a lot of cheap beers and foods to try, including the famous Westvleteren 12 (which we found to be rather overrated). We also went to the De Struisse brewery, but it wasn’t much to see.

That was the first half of our trip, and i think i’ll stop there for now. Parte Deux will be about Austria and Germany, and i’m promising myself right now that i will write about it as soon as i can.

Tot de volgende keer…

Book Review: Station Eleven

Station ElevenStation Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Just today on NPR i heard this book named on a list of finalists for the 2014 National Book Award. I’m not usually on the cutting edge of literature, but this book was so highly praised and sounded so interesting that i decided to jump on it. All i really knew was that it was set in a post-apocalyptic Earth. Say no more.

There are a lot of flashback-type scenes, so big chunks of the book do not actually take place in that post-apocalyptic world. In fact they describe pretty mundane lives, and that served as a contrast to the very unusual lives that the characters who survive the crisis live afterward. The book made me appreciate a lot of everyday things even more than i already did, and believe me i’ve always been a huge fan of my hot showers and readily-available food. It also shows that even in the absence of all the technologies and conveniences that we’ve built our lives around, the same interpersonal issues remain, and actually become even more important.

Not a whole lot actually happens in this book. It’s more about thoughts and feelings than action and dialog. I described it early on as The Walking Dead minus zombies, but it’s also that minus all the talking (my god, the talking) and the gore (mostly). It’s surprisingly creepy even without all those things, though. But mainly it’s a tale of a few people who went through a pandemic and how their lives were tightly connected even though they didn’t realize it. Contemporary literary fiction is very often about intertwined lives, i’m noticing. We affect each other’s lives both directly and indirectly.

I liked the writing style. The pretty little sentence fragments that illuminated meaningful things. I liked the rather unflattering portrayal of religion’s role in humanity as it hung by a thread (sorry). I enjoyed the details about how civilization just crumbled without its workforce to support it and how the characters dealt with that. I liked the characters even though they weren’t super-admirable all the time. And i liked that there was a lot of misery and suffering but also just a little bit of enjoyment and hope.

And, by the way, i’m proud of myself for reading this book while Ebola was rearing its head in America and not even freaking out about it. If anything, this book made me less scared of Ebola because it’s nothing compared to the fictional Georgia Flu, which seems to transmit through the air and kill almost everyone within days. Ebola is slow-moving; we’ve totally got this.

View all my reviews

Book Review: The Magician King

The Magician King (The Magicians, #2)The Magician King by Lev Grossman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Yes. This was an Empire Strikes Back kind of sequel, i.e. the perfect kind. The characters go through these painful, disfiguring transitions, and begin to gain awesome powers and develop deep relationships with one another. They make big mistakes, but they do so knowingly. They want to be heroes even though they don’t really know yet what that means, and they jump into the void and come out the other side of the ensuing disaster by the skin of their teeth.

This is two stories, really. It’s the story of Julia, and it’s the story of Quentin. Julia’s story is heart-rending and yet full of hope. It’s truly a woman’s story, and i think Grossman did a great job of telling it. I think he’s sensitive to women’s issues, and although the first book made me raise an eyebrow as a feminist, i totally forgive him now. It was Quentin who was the dick in the first book, not Grossman.

Quentin has totally redeemed himself in this book, too. From the outset, he’s a much more mature person than he was in book 1. He is learning how to actually care about people. He’s somewhat reluctantly becoming a much better person. He’s still trying to figure himself and his place out, but he’s doing a lot better than he was before. He’s gone from spoiled, self-centered, worthless piece of teenage crap to flailing would-be hero young adult. He’s getting there. I really do care about him now, and i’m ready to root him on in book 3.

The other characters took a back seat in this book, which i was grateful for. Janet was hardly even in it, and she tends to bring out the worst in the other characters. Some fun new characters were introduced, and they were less into the debauchery than the Physical Kids were in book 1.

I love Grossman’s humor. He gets me completely. It’s crass and well-written like British humor and silly like a TV show and nerdy to the max. I giggled a lot while reading this book, right up to the end. It just amazes me how he can be funny and fantastic and realistic and smart and poetic all at once. What a good writer.

I’m so glad i came back to this series. I swore it off after the first book because i hated the characters, but two things brought me back. The first was an article called Would You Want To Be Friends With Humbert Humbert?, and the other was A Discovery of Witches, which put me over the edge of tolerating shitty characters. I can’t put my finger on it, but the characters in that book were just so inhuman. And that happens in a lot of fantasy books. They just don’t react like real people would to things, and it’s annoying as hell. Grossman knows how to write real people, and i love that. Even if they usually start out as dicks.

View all my reviews

Book Review: A Discovery of Witches

A Discovery of Witches (All Souls Trilogy, #1)A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I always read the negative reviews of a book before i pick it up, and for this book they all said the same thing: the story drags and the love story is cheesy. But people said the same things about The Night Circus and i adored that book, so i went ahead and dove into A Discovery of Witches anyway, since its overall rating was so high on Goodreads. Unfortunately, those negative reviews were spot-on.

I like a good long, dense book with plenty of somewhat superfluous details and rich character development. But this book was just plain boring. There were two very brief, rather lame action scenes in the entire book. The bad guys are simply pathetic. They’re so disorganized and timid and dumb, it just doesn’t make any sense. All that happens in the—what, 500?—long pages of this book is brewing, in more than one sense of the word. They sit around and brew and drink tea endlessly, teasing out each other’s “secrets” and telling each other what to do and trying to figure out what the enemy is up to and staring at ancient books and pawing at each other and anticipating a war, and starting all over again doing exactly the same things the very next day, day after day after day for a month. They change locations a couple times, but it’s not enough to make the story interesting.

The story revolves around the couple of Diana and Matthew, a witch and a vampire, respectively. In the course of four weeks, this pair goes from strangers to enemies to quasi-friends to dating to married to talking about children to risking the fate of the planet for their relationship. And for the first half of that, i didn’t buy their chemistry at all. (I had to imagine them as Daenerys and Drogo in order to sell it to myself. No, i don’t watch GoT, i’ve just seen a couple of episodes.) Oh, but they never have sex. They just do a huge amount of making out.

They’re a lot like Edward and Bella, unfortunately. Apparently vampires are just dogmatic assholes by nature and can therefore be forgiven for it endlessly, even by supposedly intelligent, independent-minded women. There was one moment when i really should have put the book down, when Matthew was physically restraining Diana against her wishes and telling her that if she fought him or ran from him, he basically wouldn’t be responsible for killing her. RED. FLAG. He got somewhat better after that, but they continued with their power struggle and their mind-numbing Q&A sessions for the entire book. I read Twilight once, and that was quite enough of that stuff for me.

There were other little things that bothered me maybe more than they needed to. I don’t like that when a vampire turns a human into a vampire, the new vampire is the old one’s “child.” So, what if a vamp turned a human because they were romantic partners? You’d be in a relationship with your own kid?! Gross. All the “his son” and “his father” crap was annoying, especially when Matthew’s “son” then became Diana’s “son” too, after they became married. (Even though she was not aware that they’d become married until after the fact but was still cool with it, which was all kinds of stupid in and of itself.)

And i must say that Deborah Harkness’s fashion sense is absolutely atrocious. There were so many turtlenecks, yoga pants, and monochromatic outfits that it kind of made me want to puke.

I stuck with it because i was waiting for The Magician King and wanted to read something magical and fun, dammit. But i hardly even got that. The witches’ temperamental house was the one really cool part of this book—and by far the best character. I enjoyed the clever alchemical mystery stuff, and i can sort of appreciate the great amount of historical knowledge that went into this book, but unfortunately you have to be a historian to keep up with all of the references that the story is heavily peppered with. Most of the cool stuff went way over my head, and the book was just too long for me to be able to spend time looking things up. Diana’s powers are intriguing and they’re going to be awesome by the end of the series, i’m sure, but they’re painfully slow to develop. I can appreciate that to some extent—I mean, was Luke Skywalker any different?—but i’m not going to slog through all this other filler to get to the fun stuff in this series. It’s just not worth it; i’m cutting my losses now.

View all my reviews

Book Review: Life of Pi

Life of PiLife of Pi by Yann Martel
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What in the hell did i just read?

I picked this book up because it was available from the digital library and i was in the mood for something fun. I was expecting something like Cast Away with a tiger. I’ve never seen Cast Away, mind you, but i know that it involves Tom Hanks having conversations with a volleyball, so in my mind it’s generally a lighthearted story. Life of Pi turned out to be considerably darker than what i had in mind—not in an oh-the-humanity way, but in a weirder way.

I began reading with the Author’s Note at the beginning of the book. Thinking that it was Yann Martel’s actual introduction to the book and seeing that it was rather long-winded and narcissistic, i skimmed it. It described the author suffering a poor book reception, searching for new inspiration, taking his bag of money to India to do some writing (à la Elizabeth Gilbert), and happening to speak to a local there who told him a great story, which became the basis of the book i was about to read. The main character, Pi Patel, was a living, breathing human whom the author visited and interviewed. Ah, so this is a true story?! I thought. Well. I was misled.

But before i get into that, i want to mention that i almost didn’t make it through Part One of the book. Part One takes up about a third of the book and comprises Pi’s backstory, from childhood up until he boards the ship that was meant to take his family and part of their zoo to Canada but winds up sinking. Pi becomes fascinated with religions at an early age and adopts not just one, but three of them. And of no discernible consequence to the rest of the story is his near-sighted derision of atheists and agnostics. These snide remarks bubbled up several times, to no effect except to dare me to put the book down. They weren’t really even followed up later in the book. I’m still not certain what their purpose was.

So the book is set up as being a story about faith. Fine. Except… If that’s truly the book’s aim, it did a pretty terrible job of making me believe in God or even making a case for faith. I’m a tough cookie when it comes to those matters, i know, but i truly made an effort to be open-minded in this case. It’s only fiction, after all. But i just don’t see that this book is really even about God.

About halfway through, i checked Wikipedia (carefully, trying to avoid spoilers,) to see if this was indeed a true story. It isn’t. It’s billed there as a fantasy, which served to confuse me further. How is this book a fantasy, i wondered. It’s far-fetched, but not fantastic. I read on.

Stories of survival are fascinating to me (as long as they aren’t too brutal. I’m never going to read the story of that guy who hacked his own arm off. Nope. I’ll stick to the untrue survival stories for now). I love it when characters devise clever ways of staying alive, and there was plenty of that in this book, which i enjoyed a lot.

Then, at about 80 percent of the way through the book, the story became a very different story. It went from being a far-fetched but plausible story to being something that Jules Verne might have written. It got dark, and then it got weird, and then it got darker and weirder. It turned into a sci-fi. And then in the last ten percent it concluded with one of those maddening endings that sci-fi writers love to write that leave you going “so… WTF actually happened?” I like those and hate them at the same time. And it’s not really clever anymore. Too many writers have done this already.

So i’m giving this book three stars despite its beginning and its end, because the middle was pretty entertaining. And i actually liked the weird stuff toward the end quite a lot. If Part Three had been something that tied things up nicely rather than just sort of unceremoniously pulling back the curtain, i think the book would’ve been a lot stronger.

Now i’m going to have to watch the movie, in spite of the CG tiger.

View all my reviews

Book Review: The Golem and the Jinni

The Golem and the JinniThe Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Golem and the Jinni appeared on my to-read list sometime in recent months, having been recommended to me probably by Goodreads. It sounded interesting and it had a very high rating, so i thought i might read it some day. And then in a moment when i was trying to pick something to read, i noticed that my local library was going to be having a book discussion for this title in July. So i bought it, and the ebook happened to be on sale for two bucks, and i tore through all 500+ pages of it in a little over a week. The book discussion is tonight—i made it!

My reviews usually dive straight into whether or not i liked the characters in a book, because up until recently that has been my number-one criterion for reading enjoyment. However, I recently read an article in The New Yorker entitled “Would You Want To Be Friends With Humbert Humbert?” which really got me thinking about why i would require every book’s protagonist to be likeable. This particular line stuck with me: “If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities.”

As it happens, i did like the characters in this book quite a lot—not that i consider that to be of utmost importance anymore. I thought that the golem and the jinni were both somewhat frustrating and rather fun for completely opposite reasons, which of course is the crux of the story. I thought all of the supporting characters were well thought-out and fascinating as well, and i loved getting into their backstories and watching them intertwine with one another. There were close to a dozen characters who all played an important role in how the whole turn of events wound up, and it was all very neatly woven and played out. I was satisfied at the end, for reasons i would not have foreseen.

In fact, some of the things that usually satisfy me at the end of a book were missing from this one. We don’t know exactly where the characters are headed. We know that the two main characters have fallen in love, but they’ve never said it outright and never physically acted on it. Not even a kiss! And i wouldn’t say that the resolution of the main problem(s) was entirely satisfying, either. I had hoped for a more reassuring fate for each of them. And yet somehow, i’m not disappointed. The way things happened for each person involved was pretty interesting.

This story has a lot to do with issues of culture and immigration and religion and tradition, but nothing too harrowing happens in order to spotlight those things. Which is to say, i was glad to be able to observe and think about those issues without being suckerpunched by them, which is the way i feel a lot of literary fiction likes to handle things. Fantasy is usually a lot lighter than literary fiction, which is why at this stage in my life i prefer it. I’m sensitive. This was a nice blending of the two styles; a look at reality through a slightly fantastic lens. That’s an approach that i very much enjoy, and i hope i can find other well-researched fantastic historical/literary fiction novels.

I liked the historical tidbits about New York at the turn of the century. I liked pondering (and even getting confused by) the cultural differences. I loved the way the two fantastical creatures from two different cultures were crafted into these perfect opposites, and the way that each of them was an exaggeration of human nature. Their trysts in the city in the middle of the night were pure fun. Even their mundane mock-human lives were entertaining to read about. And the great ethical challenges they faced—to be or not to be?—were fascinatingly tragic, yet hopeful.

Helene Wecker’s writing is very neat and nice and well done. The whole book is well done. I definitely enjoyed this one, and i’m looking forward to seeing who else in the neighborhood enjoyed it, too.

View all my reviews

Book Review: I Am Legend

I Am LegendI Am Legend by Richard Matheson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was a great book. I found myself wishing i could still be reading it after i had finished. It’s very short, but other than that i would say it’s pretty much flawless.

I’m not even sure why i liked it; it’s a bleak story. The protagonist Robert Neville is presumably the last man on Earth after a disease infects everyone and begins to turn them into vampires. Yes, vampires, although they’re more like what we know as zombies. It isn’t a fantasy book; Neville slowly unravels the mystery of the disease and discovers that vampirism isn’t something mystical, but a set of symptoms that are attributable to the disease. I enjoyed that part a lot. Neville is a champion of skeptical, scientific inquiry. His struggles with self-discipline and motivation to tackle the problem at hand made a lot of sense to me, as did his relentless desire to discover the truth.

Something about survival stories is so much fun to read. I’ve enjoyed that ever since i first read The Boxcar Children, i think. I shy away from anything that’s too brutal though, so i don’t read very many survival stories, but this one was just right for me. It’s riveting to hear about someone working diligently to take care of himself, and doing an admirable job of it. That’s the kind of work people were meant to do.

I don’t want to give the ending away, but it’s pretty amazing. Unless you’re much cleverer than i am, you don’t really understand the title of the book until the very last page. And then you get it, and it blows your mind.

And, by the way, they had no business using this title for the Will Smith movie. It doesn’t fit. They took many, many liberties with the story, but the main thing they changed was the ending. I don’t particularly care that they changed the things they did, but i just think it’s silly that they used this title for it.

So, probably you should read this book, whether you liked the movie or not. It’s a classic.

View all my reviews