A Childhood Favorite

The Incredible JourneyThe Incredible Journey, by Sheila Burnford, was first published in 1960.

When I thought about a book I loved as a child, this was the first book that came to mind. I don’t remember how old I was when I read it. I don’t remember if I’ve seen the Disney movie adaptation. Back then, I most likely borrowed it from the New Orleans Public Library bookmobile that parked next to the gas station across the street from the U-tote-M. I’m fairly sure I’d read it only once, until now.

John Longridge is a bachelor who lives in the countryside of Ontario Provence, Canada. He’s a writer. He lives a quiet, solitary life. Mrs. Oakes and her husband, Bert, live nearby and take care of Mr. Longridge’s house – the gardening, cooking, repairs, and so on.

Eight months ago, Jim Hunter, a friend of Mr. Longridge, had accepted an invitation to deliver a series of lectures at a university in England. John agreed to watch the Hunter family’s pets – a Siamese cat named Tao, an elderly English bull terrier named Bodger, and a young Labrador retriever named Luath – while they were away.

The Hunters will be returning in three weeks.

John Longridge is leaving at seven in the morning, for a trip to Heron Lake, where he and his brother own a hunting cabin. Mrs. Oakes and Bert will look after the animals, but won’t be able to come over until nine.

Before he goes to bed, John writes a two-page note for Mrs. Oakes, with a grocery list, and explaining that he’d be taking the dogs and the cat (second page) for a run before he left.

The cat accidentally knocks the note off of the table, and the second page lands the fireplace.

In the morning, John takes the animals for a run, packs up his car, and drives off, leaving the dogs and the cat in the yard. (They always stick close to home without supervision.) After twenty minutes or so, the young Labrador suddenly walks down the road. The Siamese cat and the English bull terrier don’t know where their friend is going, or why, but follow.

Mrs. Oakes arrives and finds an empty house. At first, she assumes that the animals were off for a walk to the nearby school. Then she finds the note Mr. Longridge had left her. She thinks it extremely odd that he had suddenly decided to take the animals with him, after making the arrangement for her and her husband to watch them, but eventually accepts this change of plans.

Something is telling the young Labrador that he must go home, and that home is to the west. He’s not going to go home alone. He’s going to bring the cat and the old dog with him.

The three friends make an incredible 300-mile journey west, across the Canadian wilderness. They meet wild animals, find food with their limited skills, deal with the harsh environment, and encounter friendly humans along the way. They’re house pets, so surviving is not going to be easy.

They manage to survive a collapsed beaver dam, an unwise attack on a porcupine, an aggressive farm collie, and a separation.

Meanwhile, John Longridge and Mrs. Oakes realize their misunderstanding, and begin a frantic search for the lost pets.

One thing I loved about this book, this time around, is that the dogs and the cat are not at all anthropomorphized. They are allowed to be animals, acting on instinct and motivated by hunger. It’s refreshing. They don’t talk to each other in English. They don’t understand what humans are saying, other than the basic commands they’ve been taught.

The points of view shift throughout the book. We, the readers, are told more about the humans than the animals understand.

The Incredible Journey is a children’s novel, with some scary scenes in it – the vicious, bloody fight with the collie, for instance. It’s an episodic adventure that moves quickly from one scene to the next. The characters (human and animal) are interesting, but not too complex.

The copy I borrowed from the library is nicely illustrated by Carl Burger.

  • A book you loved as a child

(I book I loved now, as well)

La Ciudad Blanca

The Lost City of the Monkey GodThe Lost City of the Monkey God, by Douglas Preston, was published in 2017. It is a true story.

Deep in Honduras, there is an area covering 32,000 square miles known as La Mosquitia. Ancient maps called it Portal del Infierno (Gates of Hell). It is one of the last scientifically unexplored places on earth. It is also considered one of the most dangerous places on earth.

La Mosquitia contains thick rainforests, high mountains, swamps, swift rivers, and pools of quickmud. The forest is so thick that it’s possible to become lost just ten feet from your campsite. It is populated by deadly snakes, jaguars, and catclaw vines. Also, the towns surrounding La Mosquitia are controlled by drug cartels.

According to legend, deep inside La Mosquitia is an ancient “lost city” built of white stone, named la Ciudad Blanca (the White City). It is also known as “the City of the Monkey God”.

In 2012, Douglas Preston, a writer for the American Museum of Natural History, joined a scientific expedition, lead by a film producer, to journey into the most dangerous place on the planet, on a quest to find the Lost City of the Monkey God – if the city ever really existed, that is.

The book spends many pages covering the histories and legends of past expeditions – some dubious, some outright frauds, but none were able to credibly find Ciudad Blanca. These pages also cover the history of Honduras, as well as the banana and cocaine industries.

In 2012, the team used lidar mapping – never before used to map a rainforest – to search for likely locations for the city, before beginning their expedition. Every step of their planning was met with resistance from the unstable Honduran government.

The lidar images produced promising results, but aerial mapping is discovery, not knowledge. “It’s bad archeology.” A site has to be “ground-truthed” to be of value.

On Valentine’s Day, 2015, the crew traveled in vans from Tegucigalpa to Catacamas, with a military escort, through drug cartel territory – areas with the highest murder rates in the world. Then they flew by helicopters into the Gates of Hell, where no human had touched the ground in hundreds of years.

In several ways, it was a costly expedition.

The Lost City of the Monkey God is a thrilling book. I sailed through its 300 or so pages. The story is part archaeological adventure, part survival story, and part political intrigue. (Even flying a spare part from Canada to Honduras, via the USA, became a logistical headache.) It often reads like a crime caper. (The team hired a former drug smuggler, former archaeological looter, as their “fixer”.)

More than a story of travel to an archaeological site, The Lost City of the Monkey God is a story of the state of archeology in the twenty-first century. It is an essay on the importance, and futility, of conservation.

  • A book involving travel

Summer

The Summer BookSommarboken, by Tove Jansson, was published in Finland, in Swedish, in 1972. It was translated into English by Thomas Teal, as The Summer Book, and published in 2003. It is illustrated by the author.

The Summer Book is a short novel about six-year-old Sophia and her grandmother, their friendship, and their summer on a tiny island in the Gulf of Finland. Rather than one continuous story, it’s a collection of brief stories, like vignettes. It’s character-driven, with hardly any overall plot.

Sophia’s mother has died. Her father is on the island, but we see him only occasionally. Although Sophia is the only named family member, she isn’t the narrator, and neither is Grandmother.

The stories center around Sophia, but she’s not always the main character. The stories are sometimes about visitors, friends, and neighbors on the island.

Sophia is full of curiosity. She’s prone to tantrums. Grandmother is patient, and talks through Sophia’s questions, but she is also a bit of a curmudgeon. Sophia asks how God is able to answer all prayers, about the anatomy of angleworms, or if it’s possible to love a cat who doesn’t love you back, and so on, and Grandmother does her best to provide an answer.

Sophia thinks it’s unfair that Papa is the only one who gets to call someone “Mama”. Grandmother won’t let Sophia call her “Mama”, even during play acting.

Grandmother is not above breaking the rules occasionally, if the need arises. Sophia is often her partner in crime.

The Summer Book is a quiet, leisurely novel. It feels like summer. There’s not a lot of drama. There’s some humor, but it’s not a comedy. It’s a picturesque description of life on a tiny island. The stories are delightful.

There’s a strangeness to this book. I don’t mean that in a positive way. The introduction and the back cover both tell us that these stories take place over a single summer. Yet, at least three stories start with “One summer…” The stories are not in chronological order, and span different lengths of time – anywhere from hours to months. One story covers a year of gardening. Sophia is always six years old – as if it really is all one summer. Yet, the book doesn’t always feel like a single summer. It’s almost as if these are unfinished outlines of stories not meant for a single book. Or maybe the introduction and back cover are misleading. It’s this confusion that kept me from truly enjoying The Summer Book.

Tove Jansson was primarily a children’s book author and illustrator. She created the Moomin series of comic strips and books. The Summer Book is one of her few novels written for adults. The introduction, by Kathryn Davis, tells us that it’s somewhat autobiographical. Tove Jansson died in 2001.

  • A book with one of the four seasons in the title

An Easy Career Choice

“A book with career advice”. I was seriously dreading this Category. The career books I’ve read, or have tried to read, have been painfully dull. I’m not interested in a career move, and I’m not interested in career advice.

As I passed the halfway mark in the 2017 Reading Challenge, I still had no idea which book I’d read for this Category. With an attitude of “Well, I have to get this out of the way, somehow” I started doing internet searches. The career books I found were all around 300 pages long. That’s a lot of pages for a book I didn’t want to read.

Last year, it was “A political memoir” that I was dreading. I fulfilled it with The Motorcycle Diaries, a book I actually enjoyed. Although it’s technically a travel journal, it outlined the motivations behind Che Guevara’s future political path – which made it a political memoir. I thought I could find something along those same lines – not specifically a career advice book, but that still contained career advice. Internet searches weren’t helping, so I figured the best way to find such a book would be to use the Seattle Public Library’s “Ask a librarian” feature.

Before I got around to asking a librarian, however, I somehow stumbled upon exactly what I was looking for.

Very Good Lives: The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination, by J.K. Rowling, was published in 2015.

Very Good LivesIn 2008, J.K. Rowling delivered the commencement address at Harvard University. The text of that address was published as a book named Very Good Lives. Sales of the book benefit Lumos, a charity founded by J.K. Rowling to transform the lives of disadvantaged children.

Very Good Lives is less than 70 pages long. I read it in one evening, and then read it again.

In the book, J.K. Rowling makes frequent references to the world of Harry Potter, which is fair, since that was probably why she was invited to deliver the commencement address.

What I feared most at your age was not poverty but failure.” She writes of her “epic failure” seven years after her own graduation – a single mother, a failed marriage, unemployed, and “as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain without being homeless”. She explains how that failure showed her who she truly was, and what was truly important in her life. Without that failure, she writes, she may have never succeeded at what she was meant to be.

Climbing out of poverty by your own efforts – that is something on which to pride yourself, but poverty itself is romanticized only by fools.

She writes at length about a day job she had prior to the success of the Harry Potter books. It was a job that influenced not only her books, but herself as well.

She “paid her rent” by working at the African research department of Amnesty International’s headquarters in London. She read notes smuggled out of totalitarian regimes, written by those imprisoned and/or tortured. She saw photographs and read eyewitness testimonies. She met people who escaped, and who chose to lead better lives than those of their captors. It still gives her nightmares, but also taught her more about human kindness than she had ever known.

Unlike any other creature on this planet, human beings can learn and understand without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people’s lives.

Of course, this is a power, like my brand of fictional magic, that is morally neutral. One might use such an ability to manipulate or control just as much as to understand or sympathize.

Her advice to the graduating class of 2008 was to use your imagination and your intelligence. If you imagine yourself in the lives of the powerless, you will transform the realities of millions of people.

She ends with a quote from Seneca: “As is a tale, so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters.

There. I got this Category out of the way, and I found a wonderful, inspiring book that I loved.

  • A book with career advice

(You may have noticed that, ever since I wrote about how difficult it was to find a book with a subtitle, subtitled books have been finding me.)

An Interesting Lady

I asked Phillip if, in his opinion, a category called “A book about an interesting woman” is looking for a biography – or could it be a fictional character in a novel?

(I’m making my own rules for the Reading Challenge – there’s no prize, after all – but I want to do it right. I needed his input. I had a specific reason for asking that question.)

Without hesitation, he said it certainly could be a fictional woman. He pointed out that the category asks for just “a book”, and not any specific type of book. Then he pointed out that all biographies are about someone interesting. (I like that.)

Last year, at NorWesCon 39, I bought a book named The Girl and the Clockwork Cat, by Nikki McCormack. I read it for the 2016 Reading Challenge – “A science-fiction novel”. I liked it a lot. My review is here. The protagonist, Maeko, is an interesting young woman.

Clockwork ConspiracyThis year, Phillip came home from NorWesCon 40 with the sequel. That’s what prompted my question about the category.

The Girl and the Clockwork Conspiracy, by Nikki McCormack, was published in 2015.

The story is, once again, set in a steampunk Victorian-era London. The steampunk elements play a larger part in the story than they did in Clockwork Cat.

Maeko is off the streets now, living in a luxury flat with Lucian Folesworth, the inventor who lost his family in the previous book. Maeko is taught to be a proper young lady, to act properly, and to dress properly. She can’t go outside without a chaperon – that wouldn’t be proper. She has proper coming out of her ears. She misses her friend Chaff. Maeko is miserable, but she still has Macak, the clockwork cat, by her side.

(By the way, we, the readers, finally learn why that cat has a clockwork leg.)

Meanwhile, Detective Emeraude is investigating the murder of Police Commissioner Henderson. She tracks down Maeko and offers her an apprenticeship, and asks for her help with the investigation. Maeko is tempted but cautious. Em had, after all, arrested Chaff. Whose side is Em on?

Then Ash shows up, and Maeko’s life becomes truly complicated. Her feelings for him are still there, but she can’t show him those feelings. She’s a proper young lady now. And, what about Chaff? Should Maeko court Ash, or should she wait until her friendship with Chaff is sorted out? She’s in Ash’s world now, and no longer in Chaff’s – but where does she truly belong?

Has Maeko become too soft to return to the street life? After all, it’s difficult to fight like a man when you’re dressed like a lady. She used to sleep in abandoned buildings, the only girl in a room full of boys. Now she’s starting to think of boys in a different way.

Maeko will have to sort out these priorities if she is going to accept Detective Emeraude’s apprenticeship. And if Em’s theory is correct, and the powerful political group, the Literati, are involved, things could get quite dangerous.

But then a second murder occurs, one closer to home, and Maeko, the half-Japanese street urchin/proper lady/amateur detective/thief finds herself pushed into the middle of a much larger investigation.

The Girl and the Clockwork Conspiracy is the second book in a trilogy, or maybe an ongoing series (I don’t know). It starts right in with the story, with no recap of Clockwork Cat, and gives its readers reminders of the previous story here and there. It ends rather abruptly, even more open-ended than the first book. It’s not a complete story.

(The third book, The Girl and the Clockwork Cannonade, is scheduled to be published this year, according to the Elysium Books web site.)

I enjoyed The Girl and the Clockwork Conspiracy. It takes elements of young adult romance, science fiction, and hardboiled detective noir, and mashes them up into an interesting and original political thriller. And Maeko is an interesting protagonist.

  • A book about an interesting woman

Bodhicatva

The Dalai Lamas CatThe Dalai Lama’s Cat, by David Michie, was published in 2012. It is a work of fiction.

Visitors are often surprised to find that the Dalai Lama has a cat. But why should His Holiness not have a cat, asks the cat.

The cat, who has many names, was among a litter of kittens found in a New Delhi alley by two young boys. The boys sold off the kittens, one by one. The smallest kitten was too weak to sell, so they decided to suffocate it. This was witnessed by the Dalai Lama, who was stuck in traffic. He sent his attendant to buy the kitten for two American dollars. (His Holiness was returning from a trip to America, and had no rupees with him.)

The cat moves in with the Dalai Lama. Having been born in an alley, she doesn’t know how unusual her situation is. To her, His Holiness is just someone who gets the temperature of her milk just right.

Seeing how much care and thought His Holiness puts into writing his books, the cat decides to write a book of her own.

At first, the cat thinks that every human wakes up at 3 a.m. and spends five hours meditating. Then, with the help of the Dalai Lama’s assistants, the cat begins to understand that not everyone spends their days meeting with world leaders and celebrities.

In her book, the cat is discrete enough to not reveal the names of celebrity guests. She does drop the occasional hint, however. For instance, one guest is referred to as an absolutely fabulous actress who has appeared on British television.

Sometimes, the cat will name names, like when the teacher Thich Nhat Hanh or the Queen of Bhutan pay a visit.

The assistants, Chogyal and Tenzin, call the cat HHC – His Holiness’ Cat. One day, HHC finds her way to a space under the building, where she finds, and tries to kill, a mouse. She wants to bring the mouse to the Dalai Lama, but he is busy in the temple, so she presents her gift to the assistants. To her surprise, the assistants care for the mouse and do their best to treat its wounds. Then the cat remembers His Holiness’ teaching, and understands that all sentient life is sacred – even the life of a mouse.

Chogyal and Tenzin decide it’s time for the cat to have a new name, but “His Holiness’ Mouser” doesn’t sound right. The Dalai Lama’s driver suggests simply, “Mouser”, but with his strong accent, it sounds like “Mousie”. No, say the assistants, it has to be something more – either something Mousie or Mousie something. The driver suggests “Mousie-Tung”.

All three men laugh. Then Tenzin says, “Compassion is all very well. But do you think His Holiness should be sharing his quarters with Mousie-Tung?” They continue laughing.

For the cat, her new name is a grim reminder of a folly of her youth, when she let instincts take over, when she forgot to see life from the mouse’s point of view. Fortunately, the mouse survived. The Dalai Lama urged the cat to learn from her mistake, and to move on.

Mousie loves life at Jokhang, as the temple complex is called. Although cats spend their days dozing, she writes, they like their humans to be busy, and Jokhang is very busy. The cat provides us with a tour of the complex. She provides an eyewitness account of events and activities in and around Jokhang.

The Dalai Lama names the cat “little Snow Lion”. Mrs. Trinci, the flamboyant cook, names the cat “The Most Beautiful Creature That Ever Lived”. To Franc, owner of Café Franc, she is “Rinpoche”.

The Snow Lion of Jokhang finds that fame brings some benefits among the shops and restaurants in the area. At Café Franc, she is a celebrity. Having a celebrity in the café brings in customers, so Rinpoche is always fed well there. She is also fed well by Mrs. Trinci at Jokhang. She is well fed at a lot of places. The cat admits to being a glutton.

HHC, the cat of many names, continues to live, love, and learn at Jokhang as she grows from kitten to cat.

The Dalai Lama’s Cat is an introduction to the principles of Tibetan Buddhism. Through observations and personal experience, the cat learns of karma, mindfulness, Dharma, and the Sutras. Like the story of the gift of the mouse, the various stories are often told with a touch of humor, and always contain a lesson. Franc, who wears the symbols of Buddhism, learns what it means to actually be a Buddhist. Mrs. Trinci, a Catholic, learns why the Buddhists she works for have never tried to convert her. Chogyal’s teenage daughter, who believes in a vegetarian lifestyle but has an iron deficiency, learns that vegetarianism is not a binary principle. There are many such stories in this book.

As with any book written from a nonhuman perspective, the cat seemed a little too human at times. For instance, would a cat recognize that a car is a Fiat Punto? Would it even care? But that’s really the only nit I have to pick with The Dalai Lama’s Cat. Hey, I read a novel written by a cat, so what do I know?

I thoroughly enjoyed The Dalai Lama’s Cat. It’s a quick read, and I had fun reading it. It’s a wonderful book.

  • A book from a nonhuman perspective

Admiration

Dreams From My FatherDreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, by Barack Obama, was originally published in 1995, when the author was campaigning for a position in the Illinois Senate. It was republished in 2004, when Senator Obama had won the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate. The copy I borrowed from the library is the 2004 edition.

I originally intended a very different book,” is the first sentence of the introduction. Barack Obama was elected as the first black president of the Harvard Law Review. He was approached by publishers to write about this experience. He took on the task with “a frightening confidence”, naively believing that he had something original to say about the state of race relations.

As he considered his book, he thought about his family and his personal experiences, and decided to include those in his essay. As he began to write, those thoughts about his family took over, and the book became more personal.

Whatever the label that attaches to this book – autobiography, memoir, family history, or something else – what I’ve tried to do is write an honest account of a particular province of my life.”

Part One begins with a phone call from Nairobi, Kenya. Barack “Barry” Obama was 21 years old, and living in New York City. The call was from his Aunt Jane. She was calling to inform him that his father – a man he didn’t know – had been killed in a car accident.

Through the anecdotes of his maternal grandparents, Barry learned of his parents’ life together. His mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, and his father, Barack Obama (Sr.), were married in 1960, when their marriage was still a felony in the majority of the states in the USA. His father left when Barry was still a toddler.

Barry would see his father once more, briefly, in Hawaii, when Barry was a child.

This part of the book covers the early influences in Barry Obama’s life: the stories told to him of his African father, his growing up with his Indonesian step-father, his grandparents, his mother, and his sister Maya.

He writes of his childhood in Djakarta and Honolulu.

Barry learned about power and privilege in Djakarta, and it influenced the course of his life. His mother taught him to value education, tolerance, and justice. His mother, a white woman, taught her son to be proud of being black.

Barack Obama writes with frankness about the low point in his life, when questions of race and bigotry weighed him down. Desperation lead him to alcohol and other drugs. His school grades suffered. His mother saved him, gave him encouragement, and he went to college in Los Angeles.

“Strange how a single conversation can change you.” That conversation, over coffee, with a fellow Occidental College student named Regina, about Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, about his African name, and her life in Chicago, would eventually lead Barry Obama to a life of activism. It would take him a long time to realize the conversation’s importance, however.

Part One ends with Barry deciding he preferred to be called Barack, transferring to Columbia University, and moving to New York City, where he learned of his father’s death.

Part Two begins with Barack Obama deciding to become a community organizer. It wasn’t easy to find work in that field. He went into a successful corporate career for a while. Then he resigned. Then a job offer from a community organizing group moved him to Chicago.

Barack’s new career didn’t start off well. He met resistance from elected officials, church leaders, black people, white people, the rich, the unemployed, and the Chicago winter. But he listened, learned, and persisted, and gradually achieved some success.

Barack’s sister Auma came from Germany to visit him in Chicago, and he learned of their father’s unfortunate life in Kenya. The Old Man was someone Auma barely knew.

Barack became acquainted with his brother Roy, during a too-brief visit to Washington D.C. Roy knew The Old Man all too well.

The book traces the triumphs, defeats, and unfinished business of Barack Obama’s community work.

Part Two ends with Barack Obama finding a church to join, where he learned the importance of the word Hope, and him receiving an acceptance letter from Harvard Law School.

Part Three covers Barack Obama’s first visit to Kenya.

With Auma as his guide and translator, Barack met family members for the first time – aunts, cousins, and brothers. He toured the country, learning of Kenya, its people and its history. He learned of his family’s history. And he learned about The Old Man – the father he never knew.

He heard the story of his parents’ brief marriage from the other side of the family.

The book ends with an epilogue, six years after that first trip to Kenya. Barack Obama graduated from Harvard Law School. He returned to Kenya one more time, with his fiancée, a “daughter of the South Side”, a woman named Michelle. The epilogue ends with the wedding of Barack and Michelle Obama.

When I started reading Dreams from My Father, I was, at first, frustrated by the lack of times lines in the story. (When did this happen? How long did they live there? And so on.) Then I remembered the introduction, and realized that whatever this book is, it is not an autobiography. It is, instead, an examination of the multitude of influences that shape a life. It is an amazing book.

Barack Obama writes with a clarity that is insightful and intelligent. He displays a constant quest for knowledge and understanding. He is always questioning and always examining. Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance is full of wonderful passages on just about every one of its 442 pages.

  • A book written by someone you admire

A Book About Food

Kitchen ConfidentialKitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, by Anthony Bourdain, was originally published in 2000.

In the preface, Anthony Bourdain makes no apologies for his rough manner, or for his “blustery” words, or for the fact the pages of this book are “laced with testosterone”. That’s the way chefs act, he claims. Chefs are people who work behind closed doors, who became chefs because they don’t know how to behave in public.

For those reasons, he finds the concept of celebrity chefs annoying. Anthony Bourdain is a celebrity chef. “I suck,” he writes.

But, he insists, he loves the restaurant business. He loves the black and white of it. There are things you must do, and things you absolutely must not do.

The 310-page book begins with his introduction to the love of fine food (it was an act of rebellion against his parents during a family vacation in France) and his entrance into the restaurant life (it was a dishwashing job when he needed money that turned into a line cook position).

Anthony Bourdain writes of his experiences as a student at the Culinary Institute of America, where one instructor was so tough that he caused a veteran of the Vietnam War to run away in terror.

The book offers advice for ordering in a restaurant. Never order fish on Monday. Never order mussels unless you know the chef. Never, ever order Hollandaise sauce. Yes, the bread on your table is probably from the bread other tables didn’t eat, but there’s nothing wrong with that.

He argues that a great chef is a craftsman, not an artist.

He offers tips for cooking like a professional chef. (One tip is: Lots of butter.)

He tells stories of the ups and downs of his career – lots and lots and lots of stories about dictatorial head chefs, of cooks (including himself) high on drugs, of failing restaurants run by “knuckleheads”, and, in a chapter named Apocalypse Now, of machine guns assembled for sale in the back a certain waterfront restaurant. One of the reviews on the back cover compares Chef Bourdain’s style to the gonzo journalism of Hunter S. Thompson, and I think that’s a perfect comparison. Anthony Bourdain makes a professional kitchen sound like an outlaw motorcycle gang.

He devotes an entire chapter to A Day in the Life of his job as the executive chef at Brasserie Les Halles. The food is French, the employees speak English and Spanish, and the pace is hectic.

There’s a chapter on how to curse in Spanish, and how to properly insult your coworkers. (This was, by far, my least favorite chapter. I’m not convinced that creating a hostile work environment is necessary to build strength, no matter how stressful a job may be.)

He tells you that all of this is absolutely true. Then he shows that it’s not.

There is a lot going on in this book – maybe too much. I’m not sure who the intended audience is supposed to be. There is advice for people who eat at restaurants, and for people who want work in a restaurant. There are stories for people who want to start a career, for people presently in the career, and for people who want to remember the good old days. Kitchen Confidential is part memoir, part travelogue, part cookbook, and part exposé.

I loved Anthony Bourdain’s TV show No Reservations, back when I watched TV. So, when I was choosing a book for this Category, I immediately thought of Anthony Bourdain. I really do enjoy his writing. Unfortunately, for me, what worked in a one-hour TV show was too much in a 301-page book.

  • A book about food

A Wild Hare

Year of the HareJäniksen vuosi, by Arto Paasilinna, was published in Finland in 1975. It was translated into English by Herbert Lomas in 1995 as The Year of the Hare.

A photographer and a journalist are out on assignment. They’d been arguing. They’re both angry. The photographer is driving. The sun is in their eyes.

A young hare is practicing hopping. It leaps in front of a car. The photographer tries to stop in time, but the hare is hit. It staggers off into the woods.

The jouralist, whose name is Kaarlo Vatanen, gets out of the car and walks into the woods. He finds the hare. Its leg is broken. He makes a splint for the leg, holds the scared animal in his arms, sits down on the ground, and ignores the photographer’s calls to return to the car.

The photographer, still angry, drives off and leaves Vatanen in the woods. He checks into the hotel, gets drunk, and waits for Vatanen to catch up. He starts to worry, so he hires a taxi to take him back to the scene of the accident. Vatanen is nowhere to be found.

The photographer calls Vatanen’s wife and their magazine editor, but neither is terribly concerned. Vatanen will show up, eventually.

Vatanen has decided to drop out of society, and live in the Finnish wilderness, with the hare by his side. Suddenly, his wife and his editor are terribly concerned.

The foreword, by Pico Iyer, compares Vatanen to Gauguin and Thoreau.

The Year of the Hare is a comedy.

Vatanen finds a veterinarian who treats the hare’s injuries, and gives Vatanen a special permit to allow him to keep a wild hare, which isn’t strictly allowed. All through his journey, Vatanen meets people like the vet, who care more about doing what’s right than about following the rules.

As Vatanen travels northward through the wilderness, stopping into towns and villages, he encounters many friendly, eccentric people, like the District Superintendent who takes him fishing and shares his conspiracy theory that President Kekkonen has been replaced by a look-alike.  He encounters a clergyman, who, thinking a wild animal is loose in the church, ends up shooting Jesus in the kneecap and himself in the foot, and then performs a wedding before being taken to the hospital. Not everyone he meets is friendly, however. Vatanen has many adventures and misadventures, all with the faithful hare by his side.

Vatanen lives off the money he made from selling his beloved boat. He also works manual labor jobs here and there, fighting fires, repairing lodge houses, or cutting trees. As he moves farther north, toward the Arctic Circle, he moves farther away from his former office job in Helsinki, both physically and mentally.

The Year of the Hare is a fun, anti-establishment romp. I enjoyed it a lot. As I read it, I wondered if there was a message in all this, or is it merely an episodic tale of adventure? Then, in the final pages, it all comes together.

  • A book set in the wilderness

Stories Of Sleep, Love, And Ghosts

I decided that Banana Yoshimoto would be a good choice for this Category in the Reading Challenge. She’s one of my favorite authors, she’s Japanese, and the Seattle Public Library has a good selection of her books in its catalog.

I picked Asleep because it was one I hadn’t read, there were no holds on it, and none of my current holds were moving fast enough.

Right after I placed the hold, I discovered that I’d been misremembering the Category. It’s the main character, not the author, who should be a different ethnicity than me. I decided to go with it anyway, since all of Banana Yoshimoto’s books are set in Japan.

If I’d realized I’d been misremembering the Category earlier, I might have picked out a different book, since Asleep is a collection of three novellas, with three main characters. If I’d realized the book was on the shelf at the Central Library, I might have picked it up during a lunch break, instead of placing a hold. Oh, well.

AsleepShirakawa Yofune, by Banana Yoshimoto, was published in 1989. It was translated into English, by Michael Emmerich, as Asleep, in 2000.

The first story is named Night and Nights Travelers.

Shibami, the main character and narrator, finds the draft of a letter she’d written to a girl named Sarah. It brings on a flood of memories. The story jumps back and forth in time.

In high school, Shibami and her brother, Yoshihiro, were close friends with their cousin Mari. Yoshihiro met an American student named Sarah, who was studying in Japan. Yoshihiro and Sarah began dating. When Sarah returned to Boston, Yoshihiro went with her.

While Yoshihiro was away, Mari realized that she’d always been in love with him. Things turned sour between Sarah and Yoshihiro, and he returned home to Japan. It soon became obvious to Shibami that her brother had fallen in love with Mari.

Mari and Yoshihiro began secretly dating, against their parents’ wishes. Then Yoshihiro died suddenly.

Mari is now 25. She moves around in a trance, “like a sleepwalker”. That’s only the beginning of the story. It’s about the friendship between Shibami and Mari, haunted by their mutual loss. It’s also about a lot more than that.

The second story is named Love Songs.

Every night, Fumi, the main character and narrator, drinks herself into a drunken stupor. Right before she falls asleep, Fumi hears strange music – almost like someone singing. She’s not sure if she’s dreaming or hallucinating.

Earlier in her life, Fumi was in a romantic relationship with a man. At the same time, the man was also in a romantic relationship with a woman named Haru. Fumi and Haru hated each other. Then the man left Japan. Haru went to Paris.

Fumi’s current boyfriend, Mizuo, had known both the man and Haru. Mizuo tells Fumi that the dead often communicate with the living through singing. He says that when a person is falling asleep and when they’re drunk are the best times for ghosts to synchronize with that living person. Mizuo thinks Haru is dead. He thinks Haru is singing to Fumi.

Fumi asks a mutual friend and learns that, yes, Haru has died.

Mizuo thinks that Fumi and Haru liked each other more than they were willing to admit. He thinks there may have been some mutually romantic feelings. At Mizuo’s insistence, he and Fumi go see a man who can put Fumi in touch with Haru in the afterlife. Fumi goes willingly. She realizes that Mizuo is right: She had been in love with Haru.

What does Haru want? What is the message in her song?

The third story is named Asleep.

Terako is the main character and the narrator. She’s been sleeping a lot recently, and she doesn’t know why. She can sleep through anything except a phone call from her boyfriend. Somehow, she always knows when it’s her boyfriend calling. She’s wide awake when she’s with her boyfriend. When she’s alone, she sleeps for long stretches of time.

Terako and her boyfriend have been seeing each other for a year and a half. She hasn’t been able to tell him that her good friend, Shiori, committed suicide two months ago.

Shiori had an unusual job, and when people ask what sort of work it was, Terako evades the question. Shiori was a sort of prostitute, only she didn’t have sex with her clients. People paid to sleep beside her – just sleep. Shiori wasn’t allowed to fall asleep herself, but she sometimes did.

Terako’s boyfriend is married. Terako knows this. Her boyfriend’s wife is in a coma. He was Terako’s boss when they started dating, and she still calls him Mr. Iwanaga.

As time passes, Terako finds it more difficult to stay awake, even when she’s with her boyfriend. She sleeps through entire days. She falls asleep on a park bench and is visited by a ghost who gives her specific career advice: Pick up a job-hunter’s newspaper at the train station, and find a job that requires you to be on your feet all the time. Terako ignores the advice. A few days later, a friend calls and offers Terako a temporary job as a hostess at a trade show – a job where she’s required to be on her feet all the time.

Has her boyfriend’s wife cursed Terako to sleep, or is she helping to keep Terako awake?

I absolutely loved this book. Its three stories drew me in. I didn’t want to put the book down. I wished my commute were longer, so I could continue reading when it was time to go to work.

I wished the stories were longer, especially the first one. I wanted to know more about where Shibami and Mari were heading.

There’s a magic quality to Asleep (the book). The writing is poetic and beautiful, even when the story is sad. (I’m sure it’s even better in the original Japanese.) They’re subtle and enigmatic. All three stories are character-driven. (That’s my favorite kind of story.) People handle unusual lives in normal, everyday ways. The physical world interacts with the spiritual world comfortably and easily.

  • A book where the main character is a different ethnicity than you