Book Review: The Trail – by Ethan Gallogly

A few weeks ago, my son and I were spending the night at the Hampton Inn in Barstow, California on the way to the Grand Canyon. We were going to hike the Grand Canyon rim to rim, starting at the north rim. Here is the first post about that. Before going to sleep, I finished my last book, the Mapmaker’s Daughter, and I was looking for the next book to read.

Checking my reading list, I just happened to spot The Trail, a novel about hiking the John Muir Trail in the California Sierra. My son had hiked that trail twice already, and I had hiked in provisions to him once. It would be so fitting to be reading a book about hiking while doing an epic hike myself. I started reading The Trail in that hotel room, and then every night in that little tent in my sleeping bag. It got dark in the Grand Canyon at 7:00pm and remained dark until almost 7:00am the next morning. Since there was no way I could just sleep for twelve hours, there was not much to do but read.

The Trail was the perfect book for that.

The John Muir Trail is a 211-mile long trail from Yosemite Valley to the top of Mt. Whitney, traversing some of this country’s greatest wilderness area.

The story is about Gil, whose father had recently died, and who had lost his job in a law firm. He accompanied this father’s friend Syd, who was dying of cancer, and wanted to do one more epic hike before he passed.

If you have read Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, you will get a sense of this story. The author is definitely an experienced hiker. He tells the main story of the two characters ruminating about the meaning of life, while in a back story, we learn the history of the John Muir Trail, and the early exploration of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, including all the early explorers, their adventures, and how the various mountains, streams and valleys got their names.

There are many maps beautifully illustrated by Jeremy Ashcroft, and the book is broken down into chapters for every day on the trail.

If you are a hiker, and particularly if you are even thinking about long distance hiking, you should definitely read The Trail and you’ll learn a lot, not just about this particular trail, but about the backpacking experience in general. I loved reading this book while backpacking – it does not get any better than that.

There was just one minor thing that I found annoying about the author’s style. For reasons I cannot grasp he kept using colloquial contractions, like wanna, gonna, coulda, etc. It’s one thing to use these expressions in quoted dialog, where it makes the dialog seem real. But he didn’t do that. He used them in exposition.

I was a champion swimmer. I coulda saved him. After that day, I could never get near deep water again.

…but I didn’t wanna press the point.

I probably shoulda spent more time shopping.

It was my fault. I shoulda been with him.

Weird, isn’t it? Not a big deal, but this happens a hundred times in the book, and every time I found it distracting. It seems completely unnecessary to me, and not doing this would not have hurt the book in any way.

I enjoyed reading The Trail. If you like to hike, you’ll enjoy it too.

Book Review: The Mapmaker’s Daughter – by Clare Marchant

The Mapmaker’s Daughter is a book of historical fiction that plays in England and partly in Holland in the 1580 time period.

Frieda Ortelius as a young girl in Holland when her parents are brutally killed by the Spanish as part of the Inquisition. The Catholics (the Spanish) were killing Protestants during that time, and one of the havens for Protestants was England, ruled then by Queen Elizabeth I.

Frieda escapes and makes a life for herself with her seafaring husband in London. She comes from a family of mapmakers, and she learns the trade and excels so much that she catches the attention of the Queen. During a time of war with the Spanish, Francis Drake was a privateer working for the English crown. Queen Elizabeth eventually commissions Frieda to create a detailed map of the south of England to help Drake in the fight against the Spanish.

This is all good historical fiction, and I learned a lot about the period and how the people suffered from the Inquisition and the tyranny of the Spanish.

However, interwoven between the chapters about Frieda’s life and story is another story in the present day: Robin Willoughby is a thirty-six-year-old woman who works in her father’s antique map store when they find a blood-stained map they cannot identify. Robin goes on a quest to find out. However, along with Robin comes Robin’s husband Nate, who vanished seven years before during a solo around the world sailing race. The Vendée Globe is the greatest sailing race round the world, solo, non-stop and without assistance, and it is also by far the most dangerous of all sailing adventures.

Throughout the entire book, Robin pines after Nate and the pain she goes through even after seven years fills the chapters in this book. At first I thought there must be some plot twist that would explain the presence of Nate as a significant protagonist in this story, but sadly, there wasn’t any. While I am sure his death was tragic, and while I am sure his wife suffered, none of that had anything to do with this story and it simply resulted in more words on the pages that didn’t move anything along.

As a matter of my opinion, the author could have left Robin out of the book altogether without loss of impact. Of course, the book would have only been half as long.

But as the Germans like to say: In der Kürze liegt die Würze.

All in all, an interesting historical novel with way, way, way too much fluff that did nothing but water it down and make it longer.



By the way, if you are interested in learning more about the Vendée Globe, there are several books that tell a riveting story:

Godforsaken Sea: The True Story of a Race Through the World’s Most Dangerous Waters

I read Godforsaken Sea many years ago before I had started doing my book reviews, so I can’t show you that. But it’s an amazing read about the 1996-97 race. Another book about the same race is Alone: The True Story of the Man Who Fought the Sharks, Waves, and Weather of the South Atlantic – by Michael Calvin. I have not yet read Alone.

Book Review: Trust – by Hernan Diaz

My wife’s book club has assigned themselves Trust to read as the current book. Sometimes I tag on and read their book – but I stay away from the book club. Let me take a wild guess: Nobody in her book club is going to finish reading this book. I got to 37% before I finally gave up.

Trust won the Pulitzer Prize – go figure.

This book is utterly unreadable. I have a hard time believing that anybody can possibly finish reading this book. It’s about nothing. It starts out with a story about a young financier named Benjamin Rask and his wife Helen, both socially inept but somehow financially brilliant. Benjamin inherits his father’s tobacco empire and when both of his parents die, he promptly sells it and builds his own financial empire. Then he marries Helen, a young woman without any social skills. Today they would both probably be on the autistic spectrum. It is not clear how the two are becoming tycoons and billionaires in the New York of the 1920s.

There is NO DIALOG in this book. The characters are never speaking. The entire book is exposition. There isn’t even much character description. It just tells you, on and on and on, what the characters are thinking and doing. As a result, they never become real. They have no personalities, no depth, you can’t picture them. And they never do anything. Nothing happens. Yes, the author tells you what is going on, but you have to believe him. Since nothing happens, there is no story, there is no suspense. You don’t want to turn the pages to find out what happens next.

The only reason I kept turning the pages was because I thought that sometime soon the story must start. And then, at about 34%, the first book about Benjamin and Helen just stopped almost mid-sentence. Another book started, and the author described the unbelievable life of another brat rich guy. More exposition, more of no action, no story, no suspense.

Please, let me out of this!

As always when I don’t finish reading a book, I refrain from rating it.

If you find yourself reading this book and finishing it, I’d like to hear about it. You should earn a prize.

Pulitzer anyone?

Book Review: A Farewell to Arms – by Ernest Hemingway

A Farewell to Arms is known as one of the best American novels about World War I. Hemingway wrote it when he was just thirty years old. He was in the war as an American ambulance driver on the Italian front.

The story is autobiographical. Lieutenant Frederic Henry, an American ambulance driver, falls in love with Catherine Barkley, a British nurse. Caught in the atrocities of war, the two eventually end up together in Switzerland.

A Farewell to Arms is a love story inside a war story. It depicts the brutality and senselessness of war and what it does to the people that are swept up in it.

The book was Hemingway’s first bestseller and catapulted him to the top of American literature. It is often called one of Hemingway’s best works.

As it is often the case with me and famous literary works, I don’t rank them as highly as one might expect. I like Hemingway’s terse style, his using omission as a literary device. For instance, there is no sex in the book, but it’s obvious that Frederic and Catherine have plenty of it, to the point where the book was banned from newsstands due to the presence of pornography.

I can assure you there is no pornography whatsoever in A Farewell to Arms. The sex is solely in the head and imagination of the reader.

I found Hemingway’s dialog stilted and silly, and based on their interactions, the love between the two protagonists contrived and superficial. Besides the depictions of war, most of the human interaction didn’t seem real to me. I was reading a book, or better yet, I was working my way through a book.

Book Review: A Thousand Splendid Suns – by Khaled Hosseini

If you check my Ratings Key for 4-star books here is what you find:

  • Must read
  • Inspiring
  • Classic
  • Want to read again
  • I learned profound lessons
  • Just beautiful
  • I cried

A Thousand Splendid Suns checks all these boxes.

In addition, reading it now is extremely timely, given the recent departure of the United States from Afghanistan on August 30, 2021.

We hear the story from the perspective of two young women, girls at first, in alternating chapters.

Mariam was born in 1959 in Herat in western Afghanistan, the cradle of Persian culture. She is an illegitimate child of one of the richest men in the city, Jalil. He has three wives and nine legitimate children among them. They all live in one large mansion as a happy family. Mariam and her mother, however, live in a hovel he had built for them a couple of miles out of town, up a steep hill, away from the city, and away from his “respectable” life. But he apparently loves Mariam enough to come and visit her once a week and spend quality time with her. She grows up into her teenage years loving and adoring her father, not knowing any better that life could be different. One day she walks to the city without permission, arrives at her father’s house and quickly finds that there is indeed a difference between her and her other siblings. Within just a few days, at the age of fifteen, she is married off to a middle-aged man in Kabul, Rasheed. Despite per protests, Rasheed takes her with him and her life changes drastically. Rasheed is a brute of a man who thinks nothing of beating a wife with a belt until she bleeds.

A few houses down the street from Mariam and Rasheed lives a young family with a little girl named Laila. There are two older brothers. Laila’s father is somewhat of an outsider in the neighborhood. He is an intellectual, a teacher, who loves his books and cherishes education, even for a girl. Laila grows up in a loving, albeit poor, family. Her best friend is Tariq, a neighborhood boy who is two years older than she. Laila’s older brothers go to war against the Soviets and eventually both die for the cause. Laila’s mother is so shaken, she becomes morose and sickly. Eventually, a stray rocket hits their house. Laila is the only survivor but severely wounded.

Rasheed and Mariam rescue her, and promptly, Rasheed decides to take Laila as a second wife, against Mariam’s will. This stroke of fate puts the two women, a generation apart, into the same household under the boot of a severely abusive man.

A Thousand Splendid Suns is about the devastating abuse and systemic destruction of women in a regime and society where a few theocrats have absolute power over the lives of millions of people. It is also about the history of Afghanistan, starting in the 1960s and through about 2007. It describes the years before the Soviets invaded the country in the 1980s, their eventual defeat, the rise of the Mujahideens, their devolution into bands of warlords bent on destroying their own country for personal gain and power, and finally the rise of the Taliban, pre-Osama bin Laden. It illustrates in vivid detail what the Taliban, basically a bunch of uneducated goat-herders and religious fanatics, did to their own country and most importantly, to 50% of their population – all the women. We witness the hardships of women under that regime, and then, as we all know, the post 9/11-years as the American’s supposedly liberated the Afghans from the Taliban. Things started getting better again in the country and people’s lives started to improve.

That is where A Thousand Splendid Suns ends. There was hope. There was light again for girls and women.

The bitter, brutal irony is that I read this book not in 2007 when it came out, but fifteen years later, now in 2023. I know that the Americans left the country under very adverse conditions for the Afghan people. I know that the country fell into the hands of the Taliban again within days of America leaving, and I know, from reading A Thousand Splendid Suns what happened to the Afghans – again.

It’s easy for us to make decisions about how we feel about Afghanistan being a world away. Reading A Thousand Splendid Suns is crushing, challenging, and most of all thought-provoking. We didn’t do anything new to Afghanistan. We were just another invader in the revolving door of systematic subjugation of a nation and its people, a nation that could not be defeated by two superpowers in two generations, but a nation that also hasn’t figured out how to live and prosper on its own.

The Afghan people are not to be blamed. The sick interpretation of Islam and the fact that an entire nation is willing to subjugate itself to its dogma is at the root of the problem. And that is exactly why there should never be any connection between politics, government and church, any church at all.

Reading this book, I realize that through my entire lifetime on this planet, the people of Afghanistan have suffered, badly suffered, and there is no end in sight even now.

Book Review: Yestertime – by Andew Cunningham

Ray Burton, a journalist from Florida, travels to Flagstaff, Arizona to support a good friend who is dying of cancer. After his friend dies, he drives to the outskirts of the city to visit Hollow Rock, a ghost town. By accident he stumbles into a hidden cave where he finds a trunk left by a man named Stan Hooper in 1870. Along with some old belongings, there is a note, and a camera with several memory cards. Clearly, that can’t be. So Ray picks up the trunk and drives it home to Florida. When he starts researching the name Stan Hooper online, he soon gets a visit from a couple of goons with the NSA.

This is a very poorly written book, and I am not worried about giving away some of the plot – it’s so inane anyway. There are time portals sprinkled around the world that are one-way. In other words, you can go from the cave in Flagstaff to the bustling western mining town of Hollow Rock just by walking through a passage in the cave. But you can never go back. The only way out is another portal to another time. You hope you can find your way back home, but none of the characters traveling in time ever do.

We never find out who built the portals and why, but a group of six people in the year 2105 figured it out and started traveling the portals – why? – that’s not clear. There seems to be no mission. They are not allowed to tell anyone about the portals, and they are willing to just kill one another for blabbing, but still, they all blab. That’s how Stan Hooper started traveling, and that’s how Ray got involved.

The book has no end. It just stops suddenly, and it’s an obvious setup for a sequel or a series. I won’t read the next books since there isn’t enough of a story to keep me interested.

The author does not seem to know how to tell a story. He doesn’t show the reader. He tells the reader. The book is mostly exposition, with some terrible dialog sprinkled in. The characters, including the protagonist, are all shallow and non-descript. Even their names are boring: Mitch, Herb, Max, Stan, Alan, Hal, Natalie, Jim.

He likes the characters to kiss: “…he said, smothering her in kisses…” or “…in his arms and kissed her deeply….” or “…her arms around me and kissed me hard on the lips….” All the kisses are “deep” and “hard.” Of course there is also sex, but the way it’s told is too weird:

Natalie and I were becoming closer with each day. She was as genuine a person as I could have hoped for. Being around her made me understand why she had wanted to escape the movie world. But she also seemed to genuinely have feelings for me, even though I was almost twenty years older than her. Just as she had the first night, the second night back in the cabin she had slept with me on the floor. No sex, just companionship and the need to be close. There was something more, but we’d only known each other for a few days, so I guess I’d see where it led.

Oh, well, it led to more of the same.

One strange coincidence: This book plays a lot in and around Flagstaff, Arizona, and I actually was in Flagstaff last Saturday when I read the final chapter of Yestertime. After I closed the book in my Kindle, I went over to Google Maps and searched for Hollow Rock, just in case. I might have wanted to search for the cave.

I didn’t find any Hollow Rock.

Book Review: Children of Time – by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Children of Time is a book I had known about for a long time but never decided to read. One of my – somewhat illogical – reasons was that it deals a lot with spiders. I don’t like spiders at all. You should have seen me on my walk this morning when I went out before 6:00 am, apparently the first walker in my neighborhood. I ran right into a spider web between my house and a tree that obviously was just woven over night. I did the incredible spider dance, frantically brushing my face and body to get rid of any nasty that I might have picked up. Yes, I don’t like spiders at all.

My son-in-law, also an avid science fiction reader, recently mentioned that the book Children of Time was one of his favorite science fiction stories of all time. That was enough to put me over the edge and I finally read it. It’s a big book with a print length of 608 pages, but it’s even a bigger book content-wise.

There are four main themes in this story that are woven together to create this plot.

  • Theme 1 – Earth is being destroyed and polluted by humans to the point where it becomes uninhabitable
  • Theme 2 – Humans leave in generation ships
  • Theme 3 – Terraforming technology
  • Theme 4 – Evolution and uplift

As you might imagine, every one of these themes is a complex subject for a novel, but putting four into the same book seems impossible. Yet, the author accomplished just that.

For Theme 1, this is an epic story. Humanity has achieved travel to the stars. The solar system is populated with colonies and terraforming technology. The first starships have left to explore other star systems. But at home on Earth, humans have polluted the planet to the point where is no longer livable, and various factions, including religious ones, are starting to go to war over resources. Eventually, humanity self-destructs, not only physically, but a computer virus (a little far fetched) disables all automated systems it can reach. Only the farthest-away space ships have a chance to evade the virus. Eventually, a few thousand years go by, and that world is known as the “Old Empire.” A new generation of humanity rises from the ashes and again ascends to space travel. Their level of technology is well below that of the Old Empire, and much of their frontier work is comprised of finding and salvaging Old Empire technology. Usually they find it in orbiting hulks of ancient space stations. These new humans are now spreading again to the stars in search of planets they can terraform.

For Theme 2, there is no magic technology that overcomes the speed of light, so the starships only travel at a fraction of the speed of light, making journeys take decades or even centuries. Since humans can’t live that long, they are put to sleep cryogenically and the ships operate robotically and wake  humans only when they arrive at their destinations, or when there is a problem or a decision to be made.

I love generation ship stories, enough that there is an entire category that labels them in this blog. You can select it on the Categories dropdown on the right. This is a pretty good generation ship story.

For Theme 3, it always strikes me as odd that the Earth is so polluted and destroyed, it can’t be lived on, but some dead ice planet light years away can be terraformed so human life can sustain itself. Is it really easier to terraform an alien environment than to rekindle the Old Earth? Maybe not, but it sure makes for a good foundation for a story about star travel.

For Theme 4, this is a book about evolution, and more importantly, uplift, the process where one species helps another along in evolution to develop sentience. In this story, a human-developed virus is released into nature with the intent of helping apes become intelligent and sentient. Humans intended to create a slave race. However, things did not go as planned, there were no apes for the virus. But there were spiders. Over time, as the spiders became more and more intelligent, they became sentient, rose to be the dominant species on their planet, developed civilization, technology and eventually space travel.

Imagine if spiders became as smart as humans? What would their dwellings look like? What kind of society would they build? How about their cities? What about wars and weapons? How would they communicate?

And now imagine humans landed on the planet of the spiders. What would the spiders think of them? And how would the humans view the spiders? Would they be able to communicate?

Children of Time is a good uplift story. However, it does not come close to the works of  the master of uplift, David Brin. If you are interested in this subject, I recommend you read Sundiver, Book 1 of the Uplift Saga, to get you started. I do not have a ready review of that, since it’s been too long ago that I read those books, but I found them utterly fascinating.

I am glad I read Children of Time and I made it past my fear of spiders, at least for the book. I am still killing them when I see them in the house, though.

Book Review: Bad Monkey – by Carl Hiaasen

A few weeks ago we visited Key West, Florida, for the first time. When talking about the trip with friends, someone recommended that I read Bad Monkey, since it’s a hilarious book, and a lot of the action takes place in Key West. I had also heard about the book Squeeze Me by the same author, and word was that it, too, was hilarious.

A hapless former deputy sheriff named Andrew Yancy in Key West is drawn into a murder case. A tourist out on a deep-sea fishing boat had reeled in a human arm, presumably the only remains after a fatal shark attack. But once the coroner in Miami gets a look at the arm, it quickly becomes clear that what looks like a shark attack may well be a murder case. Without official authorization, Yancy decides to solve the case with the help of a whole community of other misfits.

The story is hilarious and sometimes I had to laugh out loud. Hiaasen seems to have intimate knowledge of the souls of the people in southern Florida, the Keys, and the Bahamas. He makes fun of the people and the institutions in the self-deprecating manner of an insider of that world.

Having just spent a long weekend in Key West, I enjoyed references to local places and tourist activities. Bad Monkey was a fun, quick read that entertained me and had me turning the pages. There is a sequel to this book, and Hiaasen wrote many other crime novels, presumably along the same lines, with goofy characters, strange and unlikely events and local idiosyncrasies.

There is not any moral to the story, or any big lesson to learn. Bad Monkey is pure entertainment – that’s all.

Book Review: Single Jack – by Max Brand


We have a timeshare condo on the Island of Maui in Hawai’i and we arrived on Saturday. In the condo there is a bookshelf with a couple of dozen books of all kinds. I usually check the books and find nothing of interest. This time, for some reason, a western caught my eye. It is a tattered paperback, titled Single Jack by Max Brand, copyright 1950. The edition in my hand was printed in 1974. It’s obviously been read a few times, but it is surprisingly clean for a book that old. The cover is labeled with a price of 75 cents.

I opened it up to the first page and started reading, and promptly got drawn into it. The last western I remember reading was the Incident at Twenty-Mile by Trevanian, and that was decades ago. You might guess I am not a western reader.

Single Jack is a story about an outlaw by the name of Jack Deems who goes by the name of Single Jack. He is a young man with an uncanny gift of – you guessed it – shooting. He is faster than all the gunfighters in the west and he is more accurate. Fate puts him into the Montana town of Yeoville (fictional) where one man named Alexander Shodress has bought the town with corruption, thievery and murder. He rules the town as its overlord, he is immensely rich from ill-gotten loot, and he annihilates anyone in his way. Enter Single Jack Deems, a man unlike anyone Shodress has ever met.

There is a good rancher, his younger brother, an eager young lawyer; there is a pretty girl who everyone falls in love with, and there are bands of the west’s worst gunfighters.

The pretty girl’s name is Hester Grange, and oddly, this is the second Hester in literature I have come across in just a couple of books. The last one was Hester the Molester in A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving. I have never met a Hester in real life, but I have now encountered two of them in two books in close succession.

I enjoyed this book of 211 printed pages. It was harder to read since the print was too small for easy reading, and there were not many good and bright enough lamps in the condo. It’s been a while since I have read a hardcopy book. It just took me a few days between swims and hikes on the island.

Book Review: A Prayer for Owen Meany – by John Irving

After trying to read The Last Chairlift and getting through about half of the way, I remembered that I had read A Prayer for Owen Meany a long time ago, probably when it first came out in 1989. I remembered that I thought it was a remarkable book, I remembered it was about a boy, and that’s about it.

A Prayer for Owen Meany has a print length of 1,115 pages. This explains why I have seemingly not been reading lately, or at least publishing book reviews. The fact is, it takes forever to read Owen Meany.

The story is about two best childhood friends, and it starts in a small town in New Hampshire in 1953, when the boys are 11 years old. John Wheelwright is the narrator, but his best friend, Owen Meany, is the protagonist. Owen, in a stroke of terrible bad luck, hits a foul ball in a Little League game and kills John’s mother who is among the spectators. Owen does not think this was an accident. He thinks he is God’s instrument.

The story follows the two boys and their friends and family through their coming of age and into adulthood. It weaves a rich tapestry of characters, and when the book finally ends, you will miss them all and the world in which they have been living. After all, you’ll have been spending a lot of time with them.

A Prayer for Owen Meany is a treatise about religion in American society. But it is also about the Vietnam war and the plight that generation of young men went through to deal with the draft and what it did to their lives and American society.

Irving likes to portray unique characters, and there are some similarities across his books. For instance, the protagonist in The Last Chairlift was “very small” as was his mother. Irving has something about small people. Owen Meany is also very small, very light. As an adult, he is just under five feet tall. Also, due to some congenital defect in his larynx, he has a very gravelly, out of this world sounding voice. His voice is so unique, that throughout the entire book, all direct quotes spoken by Owen are done in capitals. “YOUR MOM HAS THE BEST BREASTS OF ALL THE MOMS,” Owen would say to his friend John when they were 11 years old and analyzing — well — what boys that age are interested in. You will get used to Owen’s capitalized voice quickly and it works well in this book.

Besides his highly unusual voice, and his extreme smallness, Owen is brilliant. He gains the respect of the adults around him through his actions and statements, and he tends to command the attention wherever he is present. Needless to say, he is the valedictorian in his class, and eventually joins the U.S. Army through the ROTC program.

Owen, who thinks he is an instrument of God, believes he has a mission in Vietnam, and all his actions and decisions throughout his life seem to point to a single day in Vietnam – where his purpose lies.

Visiting Hemingway’s House in Key West

Last week we visited Key West, Florida, for a few days. There are two very famous Key West citizens whose presence is felt all over the island. One is Jimmy Buffett, the American singer and songwriter, author, actor and businessman, who is best known for his music, which often portrays an “island escapism” lifestyle. He started his career partly in Key West, and “Buffett-stuff” is all over the island. The other famous Key West citizen is Ernest Hemingway, who lived there in the 1930ies.

We visited Hemingway’s house, which is now a well-preserved museum dedicated to his life and legacy. Here is a view of the house.

I found it riveting to be walking through the rooms where he lived, including his bedroom and the master bathroom, the sleeping quarters for the nanny, and the room where his kids slept.

But most inspiring was seeing his writing studio. Here I am at the foot of the stairs. The studio door is at the top of the stairs above my head:

Here is another view of the building from the other side:

I was able to enter the studio. I was alone while there, behind a fence to keep out tourists, of course. I had plenty of time to just reflect.

This room, museum staff told us, is largely untouched as it was when Hemingway wrote there in the 1930ies. This is his actual chair and table. You can see one of the 54 cats on the property under the chair on the left. It is said that all the cats are descendants of Hemingway’s cats. He went up into that studio before breakfast every day to write at least 700 words. 70 percent of Hemingway’s work was written in this room, including the following novels:

  • A Farewell to Arms
  • Death in the Afternoon
  • Green Hills of Africa
  • To Have and Have Not
  • The Fifth Column
  • For Whom the Bell Tolls
  • Snows of Kilimanjaro

It turns out, I have only read one Hemingway book: The Old Man and the Sea, and I have read that several times. I have no review of it published here, since the readings were all before 2007 when I started this blog.  I once tried to read The Sun Also Rises, but could not finish it. Here is my short review.

Being in that studio inspired me, and I decided to give it another shot and read some Hemingway.

After the visit to the Hemingway house, we went across the street to climb the historic lighthouse:

Here is a look back to Hemingway’s property from the top of the lighthouse:

If you find yourself visiting Key West, I strongly recommend you visit this museum. The entry fee is $18 per person – cash only – yes, but it’s well worth it.

Book Review: The Last Chairlift – by John Irving

I tried. I tried really hard to read and finish this book. But by the time I got to 50%, I could not take it anymore. The problem is that the book has 908 pages in print format, so reading 50% of that is more than any normal novel already. I made a huge investment of time in The Last Chairlift.

John Irving is an icon. I read The World According to Garp when I was just 22 years old when it first came out. I remember it being controversial, I remember liking it, but I remember nothing about it after that.

I think I picked up Cider House Rules, but I don’t think I finished reading that either.

I know I read A Prayer for Owen Meany, I remember I thought it was a great book, but I remember nothing more about it now either.

Maybe if John Irving’s books were not so long, I’d read more of them.

In The Last Chairlift, the protagonist Adam Brewster tells his life story. His mother, Ray Brewster, is a competitive skier but she is very short and “little.” Being little is a big deal in this book. During a competition in Aspen when she was still a teenager, she gets herself pregnant. Adam is the result. Much of his story is trying to find out who his father is, as little Ray never reveals the secret, at least not in the first half of the book.

Irving employs a very unique writing style. One of the characters, Ray’s roommate and lover, as we find out, operates a machine that grooms the slopes at night. Her name is Molly. However, Adam, the narrator, refers to her as the trail groomer, the snowcat operator, the night groomer, and some variations on the theme. Another character is Elliot Barlow, Adam’s stepfather, who is even smaller than Ray at under 5 feet. Adam calls him the snowshoer, because that’s what Elliot was doing when he first saw him. But he also calls him the little English teacher and other variations.

For example: “…we know, Ray,” the night groomer was consoling her, when the snowshoer just showed up….

This style is entertaining and unique, and you get to love and enjoy the characters. Irving deals with transsexual issues, as Elliot eventually transitions to become a woman. Adam then refers to the little English teacher interchangeably as he or she in the same paragraph. He deals with sexual misconduct, homophobia, bigotry, and all the ailments in our divided society. He deals with art and literature, as Adam is a novelist. The whole story is framed in the world of competitive skiing – as the title of the book might indicate. And, as seems to be a staple in every Irving book, there is much wrestling going on.

I didn’t give anything away here. The Last Chairlift is a very entertaining book, often humorous, sometimes to the point of laughing out loud. But it’s too long, way too long, and by the time I was half-way through I found myself just turning pages to get on with it. Adam chronicles his entire life and family and extended family, but nothing really ever happens. There is no suspense. There is just more, endless hilariousness, and it got boring.

If you are a diehard fan of John Irving, this is your book. Otherwise, you can pass.

As always when I don’t finish reading a book, I refrain from rating it. However, I did just buy Owen Meany again on Kindle to give it another read.

Book Review: Crucial Conversations – by Joseph Grenny

There are actually five authors listed: Joseph Grenny, Kerry Patterson, Ron McMillan, Al Switzler, Emily Gregory.

Crucial Conversations is a book about tools for talking when the stakes are high, whether in a business environment, or in personal relationships. It consists of three parts:

Part I: What to do before you open your mouth

Part II: How to open your mouth

Part III: How to finish

It starts with descriptions on how conflicts arise and provides techniques and strategies to prepare for conversations that create results. Loaded with anecdotes and examples, it illustrates the various points and strategies and guides the reader. There are a lot of processes outlined by acronyms, which all made sense when I read them, but which I could not remember afterwards.

I learned a lot from the techniques it provided and I found myself nodding and agreeing. But the book became monotonous as it went on for 268 pages. This kind of self-help instruction could be provided in a 30 page article just as effectively, but of course, you can’t make money writing 30 page articles. You make money writing a full book.

If you have found yourself in struggles communicating with people at work or in your personal life, reading Crucial Conversations may just make the difference between walking away bewildered und unsuccessful, or resolving a conflict to the satisfaction of all participants.

If you are a fairly fast reader, you can work through this book in a few hours and then later put it on the shelf, so it’s there as a manual to quickly thumb through before you have to have one of those crucial conversations.

Book Review: A Door Into Time – by Shawn Inmon

A Door Into Time – an Alex Hawk Time Travel Adventure

Alex Hawk is an ex-United States Special Forces soldier. He is divorced and lives alone in a house in Central Oregon. His 4-year-old daughter Amy lives with her mother nearby, but Alex has been an unreliable father, missing too many of Amy’s special life events.

One day he notices an anomaly in his basement. He pulls down some wood paneling, only to discover a brick wall. He breaks through the brick wall only to find another brick wall. Once he breaks that down, he finds a letter of warning from the previous owner of the house, next to a black outline of a door, a portal.

After gathering some survival gear into his backpack, he takes a few weapons, including a hunting rifle, and steps through the portal just to check it out. The world he finds himself in is vastly different from what he came from in Oregon. A flock of giant aviary creatures attacks him and wounds him. Then a group of human warriors rescues him from the attacking beasts, but they don’t let him return to the portal. They take him away as a prisoner.

Will Alex ever make it back home?

Minor Spoiler Alert

The portal in Alex’s basement leads into a human world in the far, far future, so far indeed that all traces of human civilization have been erased. There is no more technology. Humans are just individual, loosely connected tribes with stone-age weapons. The most advanced weapon is bow and arrow. There is no technology whatsoever.

Alex is taken prisoner and eventually adapts to their way of life. After stepping through the portal a few pages into the book, he never comes back, and the entire story plays in that ultra-future stone age world, where Alex makes his life as a warrior of the tribe. He spends years with them and becomes a general in their wars.

There are some plot holes, though. Think of it, a guy lives alone in his house and one day disappears. Years go by and nobody seems to investigate and follow him? There is a gaping hole in his basement with a door to another world, and nobody finds it and sends law enforcement through it? I was hoping that there would be some resolution at the end.

This is NOT a time travel book. I found it by searching for time travel, and it has the words “time travel” in the subtitle, but it’s really an alternate history / fantasy /adventure novel that plays in an imaginary human stone age environment. The premise is: How would a modern human, albeit with special forces training, fare in a stone age society?

If you’re interested in that, this book will work for you. If you’re looking for science fiction or time travel, stop right here. It’s neither.

I enjoyed reading the story, I wanted to know how the hero would do, and especially how he would get back home. But I didn’t get what I was looking for.

It turns out, this is the first book of seven in this series, and the end is abrupt and completely unsatisfying, simply to set up for book number two.

The book reminded me of Stephen King’s Fairy Tale. A kid goes through a portal in a shed in his yard and ends up in another world. But he comes back in the end, and the story is done.

The story also reminded me of the Sterling books starting with Island in the Sea of Time. The premise there is that an entire ship is transported 3,000 years into the past. Not quite the “future” stone age as here, but the bronze age in human history.

Since I don’t have time to spend seven more books’ worth of reading just to find out how Alex makes it home, I decided to stop right there. I am not sufficiently interested in the stone age world and its politics to spend more time in it.


Book Review: We Are Legion (We Are Bob) – by Dennis E. Taylor

A  long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, I was a young computer programmer. My work was programming machines using what we called assembly language, which is basically working on the chip level. To program the machines, I had to burn EPROMS (chips) that I then plugged into circuit boards before I could run the program on a machine. Needless to say, I learned a lot about computers and particularly peripheral devices that are connected to computers, like actuators, sensors and motors that would actually make the machines move and do something useful.

During that time, I was also very interested in artificial intelligence. This was 40 years ago, and things were very rudimentary. I used to tell my associates that one day I’d be able to upload my consciousness into a computer and become independent of my body. I would be a machine who is conscious. Of course, I said I’d not want to just be some industrial robot, like the ones I was working on, but I’d want to be a spaceship. With weapons. I could just feel my ray guns itch.

I was also an avid science fiction reader, and I knew about von Neumann probes. 

A von Neuman probe is a self-replicating spacecraft without humans. It leaves the earth, spends decades or even centuries traveling to other stars, where it searches for raw materials and resources to build another copy of itself. Each copy then does the same thing. After a few centuries, the galaxy would be full of its clones.

Von Neuman is an interesting figure in his own right. Read up on him here. Sadly, he died in 1957 at the age of 53. He was a child prodigy. From Wikipedia:

Von Neumann was a child prodigy. When he was six years old, he could divide two eight-digit numbers in his head and could converse in Ancient Greek. When the six-year-old von Neumann caught his mother staring aimlessly, he asked her, “What are you calculating?”

When they were young, von Neumann, his brothers and his cousins were instructed by governesses. Von Neumann’s father believed that knowledge of languages other than their native Hungarian was essential, so the children were tutored in English, French, German and Italian. By the age of eight, von Neumann was familiar with differential and integral calculus, and by twelve he had read and understood Borel’s Théorie des Fonctions.

Now let’s get to the book We Are Legion (We Are Bob).

Bob Johansson is a software entrepreneur in our time. He has just sold his software company, he is wealthy, and he is just starting to look forward to a life of leisure. He signs up with a cryogenics company which, upon his death, will deep freeze his head, with his brain and presumably his consciousness, until sometime in the future when technology is far enough along that his mind can be loaded into a machine.  As (bad) luck would have it, as soon as the contract is signed he is hit by a car crossing a road. The world goes dark and he dies.

He snaps into consciousness in the year 2133. It’s a very different world from the one he knows. The United States, as we know it, no longer exists. The religious right had won several elections, the country went through an economic meltdown, and eventually a theocracy arose as the leading power in what used to be the United States. Also, the world political situation was drastically different, with a Eurasian block, the Chinese, Australia, and a Brazilian militaristic power.

Bob finds himself a replicant, which is a consciousness without a body, basically a computer program. He can be turned on or off from the outside and he can be backed up and copied. He is destined to be sent off into space in a von Neumann probe to explore other star systems.

While political unrest escalates on earth, he barely gets away before disaster strikes and a nuclear exchange decimates the people of earth. Bob reaches another star system and starts making copies of himself.

This book explores the feasibility of von Neumann probes, and it speculates on what the world would be like from the perspective of a human being who is completely disembodied and exists only as a computer program.

This is a debut novel and as such well-written and paced. There are none of the annoying problems we often encounter in debut novels, like poor writing, grammatical and spelling errors, and the like. The author must have used a good editor to make sure the book is clean of such distractions. The character development is a bit awkward, and the dialog sometimes stilted. But the subject matter kept me – obviously – interested and I wanted to find out what would happen next.

There was no ending. The book stopped virtually mid-paragraph. While this is a series of four books, and the author thinks of them as one story, he should have done a better job of finishing up book one for those who will only read it. But he didn’t even make an attempt of that.

While I enjoyed the book, I think I have absorbed the main concepts of human intelligence embedded in space ships. The rest is now just drama and more politics, and I can do without. So I won’t be reading the rest of the series.



Minor Spoiler Alert

The author chooses to make one of the factions of villains the leaders of the theocracy in the former United States. He portrays them as zealous, stupid, cunning and manipulative. Obviously, the author is an atheist and he does not have much respect for Christianity or religion as a whole. When I read some of the 1-star reviews on Amazon, it became apparent that he pissed off many religious people who took the book as an assault on them, their values and of course their religion. Some called it a diatribe, a left-wing assault on the country, and the like.

I didn’t see any of that when I read the book, but then, of course, I am not religious and I don’t make any effort to place myself into the shoes of religious people. I certainly think that theocracies are terrible for humanity as a whole, and I don’t have any praise for Christianity.

When it comes down to it, the author could have left all this theocracy stuff out. It didn’t really matter much in the plot, since Bob freed himself early on from the shackles his masters tried to put him into, and for the rest of the plot, Christianity had no valid active role. The way I see it, the author drew the ire of a large part of the population of the country, and therefore potential readers, by presumably ridiculing them and their beliefs, when he could have achieved the very same plot and story and message without doing that. Any other regime would have worked just as well.

Maybe his critics are right, maybe he did want to spread his message and agenda with this novel, but I think it backfired.

We turn to science fiction to let our minds reach, to experience wonder and awe, and for entertainment. We don’t turn to science fiction to get political rants or religious or anti-religious doctrine.

So, if you are a Christian, you might not like this book, and you best leave it be.