Thursday, January 07, 2010

Travel Reading

I returned yesterday from two weeks in Kuala Lumpur and Sumatra. Posts on that are coming. First, what I read while gone.

The Perfect Mile by Neal Bascomb, about the attempt by three runners to become the first four-minute miler. Recommended by my friend Nano, I very much enjoyed this. There's not much to it in any deep literary or philosophical sense, but that also means it doesn't try to do any of those things and fail at it; it just tells an entertaining and suspenseful story (even though you probably already know the ending.) There are a few years' worth of 4:00-4:05 of attempts by each of the runners, and nearly all are recounted in detail, which can get a little repetitive, but as soon as this happens, the barrier soon falls and a few of the best competitors have a final showdown.

I was happy to enjoy this; I've been underwhelmed by most running books I've come across (Ultramarathon man, What I Talk about when I Talk about Running, Once a Runner) so was happy to find something I like about what I love. I finally got my hands on the public library copy of Born to Run, so that's next. I expect to roll my eyes at a lot of pseudo-science BS, but maybe with low expectations I'll be pleasantly surprised.

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabakov. Or rather, I tried to read this. Its' a fake introduction, a poem, and then commentary. I got through the intro and poem and a bit of the commentary, but I just didn't get it, so I swapped it out at a hostel. Maybe if I'd been reading it in the US with handy Internet access to look up stuff, I'd've been able to follow it, but oh well. Especially disappointing given that Lolita was such a gripping (if totally messed up and disturbing) read.

The Best American Essays 2007. I've never read any of the books in this or the similar companion series (Nonrequired Reading, Short Stories, Sports, Travel, Science and Nature), but I think I might make a habit of it. As for this specific year, remember when Bush was president and the US was routinely violating both our the Constitution and international law? Good times, huh? Brilliant essays about it by Mark Danner, George Gessert, and Elaine Scarry that will bring it all back, and convince you it really was that bad. In fact, it was worse than you knew. Also, cool essays on the environment, philanthropy, and people jumping out of burning buildings. I think the nature of these books is not that you read every piece in its entirety; I thought about 50% were brilliant, 25% were good, and 25% I started and ended up skimming.

The Reader by Bernhard Schlink. I ran out of material, so I had to find something in the Taipei airport. I finished this in just a few hours on the next leg of the flight and enjoyed it very much. The prose wasn't anything to write home about, but the story is both beautiful and devastating at times. I thought the narrator's repeated introspections were annoying, especially at the beginning, but by the end you've been made to think about forgiveness and how individuals and society should deal with their crimes.

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