Browsing articles in "Book Review"
Feb 28, 2013

Staircase Review, Vol. 2

20130228-235534.jpgCan I call these posts “volumes”? I’m not sure. I just went around and looked at all the magazines in my house (some Martha Stewart Livings and a few literary journals, and the two InStyles from 2006 that are currently employed in maintaining the shape of my brown boots) and could not find a defined industry standard, and THEN I remembered that that’s why God made the CMOS, but just when I opened my copy, I realized that I was really just procrastinating because I gave myself a job, and that job is to write this post, which means that looking up magazine issue numbering styles is only slightly more interesting than usual and why am I even trying to categorize this with magazines, it’s a blog post, and also have I even seen the inside of my medicine cabinet? I really need to take care of that mess. When I’m done writing this post. Because I have an attention span. Like an adult.

So. These are some books I have read recently.

Bel Canto by Ann PatchettBel Canto by Ann Patchett
Bel Canto is the story of a Japanese businessman, Hosokawa, who cares about one thing, and that thing is opera. Hosokawa is invited to meet his favorite soprano at a state event in (an unnamed) South American and goes, knowing that the party is given in his honor, that the South Americans will expect this party to open up trade, and knowing that he will not do any business with the country beyond this party. He goes to see Roxanne Coss, the soprano. The party is hijacked by Spanish-speaking freedom fighters, who, in their confusion, kidnap everyone at the party: Russian business men, French diplomats, American Coss, Japanese Hosokawa, and his translator. There is no common language but the music.

The book feels like a dream. Most of the dialogue goes through the translator, which almost gives it the feeling of listening to a conversation through a glass against a door. (Sometimes I forgot the translator is there until I see him standing in the corner, translating the conversation I was reading reading, and then I was kind of mad at Patchett because how in the world do you do that with just words?) Relationships form around the sopranos singing, and the hostages and kidnappers begin to build a community, and the reader learns about this through a constantly changing perspective. The book is beautiful and hopeful and heartbreaking, as all the best books are. This is a book I will read again and again.

Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures by Emma StraubLaura Lamont’s Life in Pictures by Emma Straub
Elsa Emerson has grown up in the theater her parents own in Door County, Wisconsin. All she wants is to be on the stage, and once she gets her first part, all she needs is to go to Hollywood. Elsa finds her way, is transformed to Laura Lamont, and climbs her way up to being a real-live movie star.

I like this book because it feels like I could switch out the names and it could be about any starlet. It’s a small story about a larger-than-life time and place. It’s a peek behind the kitchen curtains of the beautiful black-and-white women I’ve always watched, but it’s written in a way that feels true, not voyeuristic. I read this just before listening to Beautiful Ruins, and they were almost perfect companions. While Laura Lamont follows the story of one woman through her childhood on the stage, grown-up stardom, and (spoiler alert) eventual aging, Beautiful Ruins twists five or six storylines together to tell a similar story on a grander scale about golden-age Hollywood, success, failure, love and loss.

Around the Internet
The Extraordinary Science of Junkfood
This is how they get you. There’s nothing in here about Trader Joe’s new rocket-ship-shaped cheese crackers, probably because things shaped like rocket ships are intrinsically healthful.

The Secret Burrito
Speaking of which, this burrito is my new life goal. It’s not even that it sounds that good, it’s just that I like secret burrito codes.

Adventures in Amish Fiction
A lit fic reader takes a look at Amish fiction.

Fireside Magazine Year 2
Remember when I told you about Fireside Magazine and how it’s a fiction magazine dedicated to good stories and paying the writers who write them? Well, they’re working on funding year two of the magazine. It’s kind of a long story, but if the Kickstarter gets funded, I get a share in a pony. So, check it out and consider donating.

Happy March, happy people. This is my favorite month, and not just because I have 31 days to drink 31 shamrock shakes.

By the way, that photo is from the library at the Irish American Heritage Center, where I spent a few hours with my family last weekend. This explains why book titles are in a language you can’t read. Unless you read Gaelic, in which case we should have a discussion about how you’re supposed to tell me when you can read Gaelic.

Jan 17, 2013

Staircase Review, Vol. 1

books and books and booksOnce upon a time, when I started this blog, I wanted it to be a book review blog. But I didn’t really know what I was doing or how much work that would be, and then all of a sudden it wasn’t a book review blog anymore. It was a sometimes-I-talk-about-what’s-going-on-in-my-life kinda blog and that’s about where’s it’s at now.

However, books are included in “what’s-going-on-in-my-life” and so what I am going to try to do is a sort of monthly recap of what I’m reading and what I think about it.

My current reading system is to keep my unread books on a shelf in my bedroom where they can stare me down with their uncracked spines, and then move completed books down to my spare staircase, where they can get dusty and look out the window. (Current books stay in my purse where they can have coffee spilled on them.) And so, I’m going to call this semi-regular feature “Staircase Review.” Because I’m reviewing books which I have recently moved to my staircase! And my blog’s name is “Staircase Wit”! It’s all making sense now! Right?

This won’t be a complete list of everything I’ve read, but it’ll cover the highlights. I’ll also talk about some of the articles I’ve read, because, well, I tend to read a lot of those.



Quiet by Susan Cain (audiobook)
In my last post I mentioned that I spent most of my Christmas trip home talking about introversion and extroversion. This book is why. Cain spent much of the book making it okay to be in introvert. She explained an introvert’s value and how modern society has pushed that value aside. It was encouraging, but after a while I wanted more practical ideas on how to function as an introvert in this extroverted world. (I imagine that someone who grew up in a less supportive household than I did might appreciate the encouragement more.)

There were three points that Cain made that I thought were particularly interesting (which means that I thought they were true of me): 1) Introverts will “go extrovert” for things which they are passionate about, 2) the American Church values extroverts, often overlooks introverts for leadership positions, and has pretty much thrown out quiet and reflection, and 3) that introverts like collaborating online and often have an easier time expressing themselves internetly, to which I said, “well hello, all of my Internet friends.”

Overall, I thought this was a great book and I highly recommend it to anyone who’s ever been told that they’re a little too quiet.

I really like the fox in this.The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey
I wanted this book to be perfect. It’s a fairy tale about snow, and that should be my favorite thing. It’s a retelling of a Russian fairy tale about an old childless couple who build a baby for themselves out of snow.  Ivey set the book in 1920s Alaska and made the old man and woman a quiet and sad mismatched couple from the east coast. It seemed that Ivey was trying to keep a balance between a dreamy fairyland and a hyperreal claim town. Instead, it felt like she teeter-tottered: Magical snow storm! Thump. Let’s gut a moose! Thump. Sullen man-dialog. Thump. Let’s make this chapter italic! Th-thump!

I thought Ivey’s use of geography was confusing. For example: the main characters moved wayyyy out into the middle of the wilderness to be alone and sad together, but they’re close enough to their neighbor’s house for dinner. Everyone is terribly far away, but just close enough to come set a spell. The snow child would run far, far away, but then it would only take a few minutes to get her home. Maybe this was supposed to add to the mystical feeling of the Alaskan wilderness, but instead I just had a difficult time getting a picture of the place in my head.

It’s possible that I wanted this book to be something that it wasn’t supposed to be, so it might not be fair of me to be so harsh. It was a pretty story and I learned a lot about how to clean game that wasn’t covered in Little House on the Prairie. While I couldn’t get a decent map in my head, I did love the cold, open atmosphere of the book and the sad, quiet feeling with which it left me. It isn’t a perfect book, but it is perfect for the snowless winter we’re having in Chicago.

Thanks, Grandma. Fireside Magazine, Winter 2012
This is the third issue of Fireside Magazine, and it is most certainly the best yet. Fireside Magazine was started by my friend Brian White when he decided there should be a place for fiction writers to publish good stories…and also get paid well for them. Each issue has four short stories and a comic. The first story, and my favorite, “Form and Void,” takes place in futuristic world where humans, at least the wealthy ones, have the ability to splice their genes in order to shape their bodies and download their memories into precious stones. I love the image of the spoiled girl adorning herself with all her memories of past slights. It’s worth the price of the magazine. The rest of the stories are terrifying, thought-provoking, maybe a little absurd, and good.




Around the Internet…

Downton Abbey, Season 3
Seth Stevenson has been one of my favorite columnists for years, and just because he loves me back, he’s writing recaps of Downton Abbey every Monday.

Why The Atlantic’s Scientology Advertorial was Bad
The Church of Scientology bought space to run an article praising the Church of Scientology in The Atlantic. Then The Atlantic deleted any comments on the article that were critical of Scientology. This was bad. This article by Erin Kissane explains why.

RIP, Aaron Swartz 
The very sad end of a very smart man. This isn’t about me, but there is something unsettling about the tragic death of someone who is my age, who grew up in my city, and whose work wasn’t finished.

Moths Drink the Tears of Sleeping Birds
I thought you’d want to know, is all.

Feb 25, 2011

Audio Imaginary Jesus

It's amazing how he's imaginary and audible, isn't it? I’ve been over the Imaginary Jesus story maybe eight or nine times in the last year, but, confession, I’ve only actually read it once or twice.*

Most of my time with Imaginary Jesus has been spent with the audio book. I downloaded it from Christian Audio last summer, but I started listening to it after I moved out of my parents house. It’s been a pretty regular companion while I wash dishes or work on other projects. The book holds the distinction of being the only non-music that doesn’t get skipped when my iTunes is on random. Mikalatos narrates, and you know, when the author is also the main character, there’s something very fitting about hearing him read it himself.

I highly recommend checking out the audiobook. Especially if you don’t have a dishwasher. It really seems to make the whole process go smoother.

Christian Audio also happens to have a free MP3 download of an interview with Mikalatos, so you should definitely check that out. Free stuff is just my favorite.

Speaking of free, don’t forget to download a free copy of the ebook! You don’t need an ereader like a Kindle or a Nook or any other reader to read the ebook. You can read them on your PC, Mac, Android phone or tablet, iPhone or iPad or iPod Touch, Blackberry, or Windows 7 phone.** Here’s the info for AmazonBarnes & Noble, Christian Book Distributors, and Sony. Let me know if you have any questions about the download process! I love to answer questions. It’s a hobby. 🙂

And, don’t forget to enter the contest to win a signed copy of Imaginary Jesus. I’ll announce the winner at around 4:30pm Central time, so you have until then to enter. Don’t forget, the more places you share a link, the more chances you have to win. Just make sure to tell me where you shared so I can count it.

I’m off to wash more dishes. Good thing I’ve got something to listen to…

*But, hey, twice in one year isn’t shabby.  That hasn’t happened since, what, Little Women? I’m also going to say that this is the only time that Imaginary Jesus has ever been compared to Little Women.

**Nothing yet for Palm or WebOS devices. Believe me, it breaks my heart just as much as it breaks yours.

Feb 23, 2011

Imaginary Jesus Review

He has funny glasses. That's how you know he's imaginary. Matt Mikalatos could have written Imaginary Jesus with a nice, quiet set of bullet points. He could have used some keywords with nice alliteration, and maybe thrown in a few anecdotes to keep things interesting. He would have gotten his point across, and it still would have been a a great concept. But he didn’t.

Instead, Imaginary Jesus is sort of a semi-autobiographical science fiction pop-philosophy adventure novel. It stars Matt Mikalatos as himself, the Apostle Peter as a metaphorical spiritual guide, Peter’s pal Daisy the Donkey, and all the imaginary Jesuses you can think of.

Matt and his Imaginary Jesus get along just fine. They hang out on weekends, and Jesus understands if Matt needs to fix a parking ticket or complain about a waiter. Jesus is cool like that, you know? They have a pretty good relationship.

Until the Apostle Peter shows up.

Peter, you see, spent three years walking side by side with Jesus. He knows what Jesus looks like, sounds like, what he likes to eat. He knows how He’d respond to practically any situation. So when Peter runs in to Matt at the local vegan Communist cafe, he knows another thing: that guy in the sandals sitting across the table from Matt? That’s not Jesus.

The imaginary jesus, on being found out, takes off running.

That begins Matt’s journey through time and space to find and abolish his Imaginary Jesus.

Each of their stops (at a comic book store, in ancient Jerusalem, and at several Portland, Oregon landmarks, etc.) helps to show Matt what he’s missing about the real Jesus. He meets several members of the Secret Society of Imaginary Jesuses, including Political Jesus, Testosterone Jesus, and my favorite, Magic 8 Ball Jesus.

There are some truly moving parts of this book. I’ve never had the “in remembrance of me” part of Communion explained quite this way. It’s changed the way I think about the sacrament. When Matt explains what it was that’s kept him from following the real Jesus, his pain is real and relateable.

But I think my favorite scene is when Matt has a tubing race with three different Jesuses to determine which view of God’s providence he should take. It’s an awful lot like the some of the discussions I overheard in the dining room at Bible college: all circular arguments and snide remarks, and in the end, someone gets eaten by a bear. (It includes what I think is the funniest line in the book. I’m not going to share it because I want you to enjoy it fully and in context.)

Which brings me to this: this is the funniest Christian book I’ve ever read. I don’t think I’ve ever switched from somber reflection to make-the-rest-of-the-train-car-stare-at-me giggling so quickly.

Wait, no. My favorite bit was Motorcycle Guy. More giggling. More staring. Couldn’t help it.

There were one or two things I could have lived without, like Houdini Dog, a neighborhood dog who steals Matt’s steaks off the grill and dirties his lawn. I’m sure there’s a great metaphorical reason behind the hound, but after multiple readings/listenings, I haven’t figured it out. Faith in the unseen? A cautionary tale to convince you to curb your dog?

Imaginary Jesus doesn’t answer a lot of questions, but I don’t think it’s supposed to. Mikalatos isn’t giving you a list of what Jesus is. He’s telling you to let go of some of your precocieved notions of who Jesus is, and go to the source Himself. He wants you to spend time getting to know the real Jesus.

Read if:

  • You ever wanted to attend Monty Python’s Flying Sunday School.
  • You liked Blue Like Jazz, but all that pipe-smoking gave you a headache.
  • You’ve met Imaginary Jesuses (or their followers) and want to know what to do about them.

Don’t forget! I’m still giving away a signed copy, and the free ebooks are still available!

Dec 2, 2010

Review: Neverwhere

Neverwhere by Neil GaimanI don’t usually read genre fiction, but I wanted to get out of my comfort zone. I can’t tell you how horrified I was when I realized this meant I’d have leave the lit/fic section at Borders. I never browse those middle shelves. I approached them slowly, only after giving the fic/lit section a quick go-over. That way, the shelf-monitors would know that I really do refined taste. Terrifing, those genre shelves were. What if someone thought I was looking for a cowboy romance?

Fortunately, the shelf-monitors are (probably) imaginary. Besides, if they came over to judge me, I’d just explain to them that I’m trying to be less of a book snob, and trying to work some good stories into my reading after a long spate of dour Southern fiction. I’m sure they’d understand.

Less fortunately, Neverwhere was about enough to scare me back to Flannery.

Richard Mehew is a 20-something with a boring job in London. He’s relatively satisfied with his life, but has a niggling feeling that he could be more fulfilled. One day, he sees an injured girl in an alley. Richard helps the girl, and in doing so is cast into her life of terror and adventure in underground London.

The girl is the last surviving daughter of a ruling family. She has magical powers. (She can open doors. Locked ones. As far as magical powers goes, this doesn’t seem very spectacular. In fact, it reminds me of The Fluppy Dogs. I don’t think that’s what Gaiman was going for.)

Richard and Door (That’s the girl’s name. Door. Sensible.) travel through London Below to avenge her parents and right the wrongs of the world. They meet and lose traveling companions, and after a few characters disappear, you get the feeling that everyone’s expendable. When Richard and Door (spoiler alert) start to fall for each other, I could think was, uh, weird. Where’d that chemistry come from? I got the impression that Door’s a teenager, and Richard’s in his late twenties. Icky.

First, if I were writing a book about a magical world beneath London, it would be called Under London. Way rolly-off-the-toungeier than London Below. Second, have you seen my basement? It’s terrifying. It’s dark and old and you can hear my neighbors walking around and you get the distinct feeling that you’re about to be whisked off to Suburbs Below, and it’s not going to be pretty.

This book prevents me from doing my laundry.

Yes, it’s exciting enough to keep my clothes dirty, but in a very strange way. All of action happens externally. It feels more like you’re watching a movie than reading a book. All of the scenes seem like they were written to be pretty set pieces. If J.K. Rowling wrote about Herrod’s being turned into a magical gypsy bazaar, you’d feel like you were there. The way Gaiman writes it, it feels like you’re watching the Christopher Columbus-directed HP. There was no character development, just whoopsie daisy, average guy becomes hero, look at that neato building.

All I could think through out the whole book was: This would be a great movie. A really fun 80s puppet masterpiece. Davie Bowie could be in it. He could play…we’d write him into it.

I felt much better I did some digging and found out that this book was, in fact, based on a movie. Yep. It’s a novelization of a BBC miniseries. At least my instincts are right-on.

I don’t think this will be my last Gaiman, though. I considered complaining to him on Twitter. I guess I should have known better, since I took films based on his books as recommendations. I feel a little tricked, though. I don’t think this book stands on it’s own without the miniseries. I’d like to give Gaiman another chance, and I might check out the BBC version. I always thought this story would make a great movie.

Read if:

  • You’re not afraid of your laundry.
  • You loved The Labyrinth or The Tenth Kingdom, and you always wished there was a novelization.
  • You’re having trouble making the difficult transition from television to the printed word.

How do you feel about novelizations? Have you ever been tricked into one? Do you have any Neil Gaiman recommendations?

Jul 13, 2010

Review: Her Fearful Symmetry

Her Fearful Symmetry, Audrey Niffenegger

I was about 10, and a few of us kids wandered into a neighborhood cemetery. It was an old Lutheran cemetery, and some of the grave stones are as much as 150 years old. We walked through the new headstones to see if there was anyone we knew, and then my sister and I started to explore the older section.

The other kids got a little nervous: Should we be doing this? My sister and I kept skipping through the headstones, reading epitaphs. Maybe we should come back with chalk and tracing paper! Isn’t this disrespectful? Don’t you think the dead will, you know, mind?

I was shocked. How could exploring cemeteries possibly be disrespectful? I did it with my parents all the time.

Exploring cemeteries has always been a normal activity for my family. Maybe it’s because we have no reason to fear death, or maybe it’s because cemeteries are such a pleasant way to find stories about people from the past. They’re parks and museums and libraries and architectural tours all rolled into one.

Julia and Valentina are not identical twins, they’re “mirror twins”. They look almost exactly alike, but opposite. If Julia has a mole in her left shoulder, Valentina has the same on her right. Valentina has situs inversus, a congenital condition which causes internal organs to be switched. (Her heart is on her right side, etc.)

The sisters just inherited their Aunt Elsbeth’s London apartment. Julia and Valentina receive the estate when they turn 21, on the condition that they live in the apartment for one year, and that they do not allow their parents to set foot in their new home. Their aunt is their mother’s twin sister, and they’ve been estranged for the girls’ lifetime.

When Julia and Valentina arrive in London, they find the apartment just as their aunt left it: clothes in the closet, books on the shelves, and a cemetery out the back door. There’s also something…new. Valentina begins to sense that there’s someone in the apartment with them.

As the book rolls on, the sisters begin to struggle. They’re twins; they belong to each other. It’s a closeness that’s more than marriage. But Valentina, whose always been the weaker, wants freedom. She doesn’t want to belong to anyone anymore. As the sisters pull apart, Valentina starts to communicate with the ghost of her Aunt Elsbeth. The selfishness of each of the characters becomes more and more apparent, and the reasons behind Edie and Elsbeth’s, the girls’s mother and aunt, estrangement start to unearth themselves.

The relationships in the book are complicated. They’re a mix of love and selfishness. Everyone wants to own somebody else, but they want to keep their own freedom. Everyone is in a cycle of pulling and running, and running and pulling. All of this pulling eventually unravels the family’s secrets.

Even thought HFS is a ghost story, the book is never particularly spooky. I think it’s because Elsbeth (the ghost) is just as deep a character as everyone else. She’s not just some cold ectoplasm—even though she is cold. And an ectoplasm—but  she has thoughts and feelings and an (internal) voice. She’s just temporarily without-body.

This all seems rather depressing: death, estrangement, disorders with Latin names, but the book never is. The story is engrossing, and the family’s mystery adds just the right amount of twists. Audrey Niffenegger populates the book with charming characters. (20% of each character’s charm comes from the fact that they’re British. It’s unavoidable.) Even while you learn their dark secrets, they remain likable. Martin, the upstairs neighbor with OCD, is one of my favorites.

Of course the dead don’t mind if you run over their graves and take chalk-rubbings of their headstones. They lived full lives and they have stories left to tell. Her Fearful Symmetry is  kind of like a long walk through a cemetery on a stormy day: beautiful old buildings, fresh air, and stories creeping around every corner.

Read if:

o You spend your Saturday afternoons in graveyards. (Hi Dad!)
o You’ve been feeling a little dead, and want a good story to liven things up.
o You want a ghost story that’s more Ghost and Mrs. Muir than Poltergeist.
Oh, and also: there’s a sweepstakes running to win a trip to Highgate Cemetery here. If you win, you should take me.
As a bit of a warning, this book is definitely PG-13. If you’re a little less conservative than me, you won’t have a problem, if you’re more conservative than me, you might. I just closed my eyes as needed.
Jun 29, 2010

Summertime Reads: Half Magic Review

Summertime belongs to childhood. The grown-up version, with BBQs and yard work, can’t compare to the long, long days spent exploring and digging in the dirt.

Now, I’m a winter girl, through and through, but when the lightning bugs start to rise up out of the grass, I start to ache for the summers from when I was little. Unfortunately, all the kids who used to comeoutandplay have moved on, and I’ve been trying to eat less dirt, so I was at a loss for a way to revisit my summers.

Then I remembered Edward Eager. Eager was a Harvard grad and a sophisticated, grown-up playwright. He never thought about writing children’s books until he had his own son. They quickly read through Eager’s favorites, E. Nesbit’s fairy stories and the Oz books, but then Eager couldn’t find anything else to read to his kid. So he decided to write the stories himself. Writer’s perogative.

Half Magic is Eager’s first fairy tale. It’s about a group of four children, three girls and one boy, who recently lost their father. (Those unfortunate children who keep both their parents must resign themselves to utterly uninteresting lives.) Their mother can’t afford to take them to the country for vacation, and the kids are at a loss for a way to make their summer worthwhile. One day, while on their way to the library, the children find an old, worn nickel.

After a few accidental mis-wishes and much discussion, the kids realize that it’s the coin they found that’s causing the magic–well, a little magic. Somehow, because of the age and wear of the coin, it will only grant half of each wish.

The wishes,  done by halves, bring the kind of adventures you only find in proper fairy tales. They have rules and consequences and the adventure is in learning how to manipulate the magic. Each child gets a day in charge of the wishing, and each day of wishes gets a few chapters to play out.

Later on in the book, when the children understand the coin fully, the wishes get a bit boring–“I wish X times two” takes care of the guess work–but until then, there are several good mishaps. (My favorite is when they wish that the cat can talk. Have you ever met a cat who can half talk? That’s not a happy cat.)

So, if you need a way to rekindle your vacation time, check out Edward Eager’s books. (Read the first chapter of HM here.) They’re fast, funny, charming reads. Most of them take place over the course of a few warm days, and they’ll all bring you back to the time when lightning bugs were only a fraction of your summer magic.

Read if:

  • You’re looking for the most appealing way possible to spend an afternoon with fractions.
  • You can’t find anyone to play Ghost in the Graveyard with.
  • You want a proper fairy tale.

Disclaimer: I got this book and many others from my family’s close friend, Jeri. Every year for my birthday, Jeri would give me a big box of old books. (These would last me a couple of days, and then my reading habits would continue to be a financial burden for my parents, who raised me to buy books before food, and gladly kept me fed.) Jeri introduced me to lots of my favorites, and I’d be remiss not to mention her in a post about Edward Eager. If I didn’t give her credit, she’d threaten to tan my fanny.

Jun 11, 2010

Review: Grounded by Seth Stevenson

Grounded by Seth Stevenson***Give Away: I’ll send you my spare copy. Check the end of this post!***

I’ve left the country exactly once: senior year of college, spring break, a friend and I decided we needed to break my single-country record. So we drove from Chicago to Toronto. We detoured just because we could. We got lost. We felt every single mile of that trip. Sure, we could have hopped on a plane and appeared someplace exotic, but that would hardly be an adventure. Half the fun was crossing the US border and finding that our GPS didn’t speak Canadian.

During one detour, we met the owner of a small coffee shop. He had emigrated from Ethiopia to Canada to teach theology at the University of Toronto. (How he ended up owning a roast-your-own coffee shop in London, Ontario, I am not sure.  It didn’t seem polite to ask.) He asked where we were from, and when we said Chicago, he made us sit down and tell him our story. When we explained that we didn’t really have a plan, that our plan was to wander till we made it, explore, and then wander back, he was astonished. “You are so American!” he said. “Canadians would never take a trip without an exact itinerary. No one but an American would make a trip like this.” *

So when I read Seth Stevenson’s book Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World, I couldn’t help but think, Seth, you are so American! Who else would make a trip like this? Who else would quit their job, their life, and circumnavigate the globe, over land, no less.

I’ve been reading Stevenson’s articles in Slate Magazine for about two years. He writes their monthly ad column, which I read religiously, but it’s just to get me through until the real thing: his travel essays. These I save for special occasions.  He never describes his trips in terms of hotel stars or mattress cushiness. I love Samantha Brown, but you can only be wowed by a mini-bar/flat-screen/hairdryer combo so many times.  Seth doesn’t bring you on his vacation, he tells you about his adventures.

Seth Stevenson hates airplanes. Yes, he understands their convenience, but he hates the whole jet-flying process. He hates the cattle-prodding at airports. He hates the lack of human dignity in post-9/11 security checks. He hates the stale, recycled air pumped into cabins. But most of all, he hates how airplanes suck the life out of a journey. Airplane travel, he says, is cheap teleportation. You jump from point A to point B and miss everything in between. So, when Stevenson and his girlfriend decide to quit their normal lives and circle the earth, they decide to do it with their feet firmly planted.

Stevenson organizes the book by types of travel (boat, train, bicycle, car, and boat again). He gives a little history on each transportation mode, which adds weight to his argument that we should use them: when you take an ocean liner, you’re not just feeling the spray of the water and seeing the sky over the seas, you’re helping to preserve a part of the human story.

One major contradiction: whenever Seth has a difficult or unfortunate travel experience, he says, “Well, at least I’m not in some airless plane cabin”. I understand that he’s saying “Hey, a bad experience is better than no experience”, but instead of living through the smell of other passengers, or the wild sea storm, he pops a Valium and chases it with scotch. What’s the difference between sleeping through a bad flight or sleeping through a bad plane ride? There’s no life there, there’s no experience. It’s still oblivion, it’s just on the ground.

What I don’t think is coming across here is how funny this book is. I read most of it on the train, bitter that my Metra wasn’t a Japanese bullet train, and my laughter woke sleeping accountants.  (A hazard of train travel: not everyone wants to share your joke, and not everyone wants to let you sleep.)

I saw Stevenson just briefly at a book signing for Grounded. He read passages of the book, and answered questions. (My question: How did you write while you were traveling?, expecting something along the lines of “a love-worn Moleskin” or “smoke signals”. His answer: a very, very small computer.) He was funny and nervous. His girlfriend was there, I liked watching them interact. He’d answer a question, she’d correct from the back row. He’d forget a detail, she’d supply it. It fit their book personalities perfectly: he’s the traveler, she’s the navigator.

My hope was that when he signed my book, it would be with some impetus to travel, something that would just force me to do something rash, like disappear to Europe for a while. Instead, he wrote “You’re GROUNDED!!!”.

I guess I’ll stay here.

I enjoyed this book. I don’t know if I enjoyed it as much as his travel essays. Somehow I don’t know that he can sustain this sort of story for 300 pages. Sometimes the transportation history seems irrelevant, and sometimes I get a little tired of his judginess. (He doesn’t like most American travelers. Understandable, I guess, but it just gets a little old after a while.) But it’s worth the read because this book makes the world seem both bigger and smaller at the same time. The earth is conquered; you can circle it in a day. But there’s always more to see.

Read if you:

  • Want to take a travel-free trip around the world.
  • Have days where you want to pitch everything and drive forever.
  • Admired Phileas Fogg‘s determination, and want to see a modern iteration.

*He then gave us directions, sight-seeing tips, and his business card. He said if we needed anything, we could call him and he’d drive right up and rescue us. I recommend that everyone travel with an Ethiopian theology professor/barista.


GIVE AWAY: You know that thrilling feeling of going to a used book store, finding that perfect book, and then finding that the previous owner carried it around with her and accidentally underlined stuff in it? You can have that feeling delivered to your house!

I’m giving away my spare copy of Grounded to the person with the best ground-travel story. I’ll even throw in a used 10-ride train ticket, so you can imagine the luxuries of train travel.

Leave your story in the comments, and I’ll judge you like the American traveler that you are. Only in a nice way.

(Unless you’re Canadian or something. If so, welcome!)