Tag Archives: travel


Curling up with a Good Book…and a good dog too.

Just a final wrap-up note note about the Minnesota visit. Grand Rapids, population just over 11,000, has a bookstore I’ve come to love over the years for its attention to Nordic Noir. Unfortunately the Village Bookstore is located in a small, and generally failing, mall, so its days may be numbered. But while it is here I am availing myself of the luxury of selecting a healthy stack of probably-want-to-reads, hunkering down in a comfy chair, and making the final selections—usually most of them. You simply cannot duplicate the pleasure of that touchy-feely perusal on line. And I am a stack of books richer for having experienced it. Can’t wait to go to bed tonight and continue tracking the murderer loose in Larvik, southwest of Oslo, with my detective friend William Wisting and his journalist daughter Line (The Hunting Dogs by Jorn Lier Horst). I do order more books than I should on line just because it is so easy—but what if we all do that so much we forever lose our access to real honest-to-god places that exude the love of books and need to be among them? Shop at your local bookstores…independent and B&N…or they’ll disappear and this will be a blander poorer world for the loss.

Title Quote: “She’d become an English major for the purest and dullest of reasons: because she loved to read.” Jeffrey Eugenides, The Marriage Plot.


“YOU ARE JUST TOO WORDY,” I say, to myself.


Being too wordy usually means throwing way too many many unnecessary words into one written piece. Like that. I suppose it could also mean always wanting to write—all those words you’ve absorbed over the years trying to get out? In my case, it appears to be both. Apparently I have too many adjectives and adverbs clogging my system and they escape onto every screen or page whenever there’s an opening. And then there’s the problem of nothing seeming real to me until I’ve written it down. Talking doesn’t help. I am not very articulate. Only writing eases the word bloat.

What to blame for this surfeit of words? Books of course; there are never too many to read or buy or touch or view or ponder or desire.

I have been writing a book. Or rather the first third of a book. Right now it’s being reviewed by my literary friends. Then it will go to a professional reviewer. After that, I’ll weep, edit excessively, and determinedly move on to write new chapters. Writing this seriously has been the most painful and pleasurable thing I’ve ever done. It took me well into my UCLA certificate program to gather the courage to approach this with earnest intent. I’ve finished the program…that old “I’m a writer” rubber is hitting the road. Wish me luck.

Meanwhile it is time to start blogging about my upcoming 2017 trips. From whence I derive the most joy. Blogging is brilliant, especially when fairly casual. Writing about travel, writing about books, sometimes about grandchildren and new recipes! In the future blogging about my history and my age. What could possibly be more fun than the latter? Blogging as I do it is ‘writing lite’, the best of all worlds if one is lazy and wordy.

This post is the first of a series about the reading I’m doing (or sadly, in some cases, just planning to do—but won’t) for my summer/fall 1) Road Trip and 2) Another Big Big Trip to the other side of the world…and farther.

At this point in time I’m in that stage when the outlines of the trips have been determined, and in the case of the international trip, the airline tickets purchased. That’s where my reading list is focused. It makes a great deal of difference to my engagement with and excitement about all of the places along the way if I have some knowledge of the history, geography, culture and customs. So I know the whats and whys and whereofs of all that’s about me. I’m not talking about scholarly research or needing in-depth knowledge—although I always mean to try for a little of that—I’m simply talking about a good history/adventure story/novel/murder mystery or two or three.

The countries to explore through words and in person: New Zealand, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, Nepal, India. Not so many really but of such world-impact that hundreds of books could not cover them. Particularly India, but also Southeast Asia’s Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar. Nepal because I can. New Zealand because travel buddy, Teresa, who’ll go adventuring in Vietnam with me, lives there.

The Book Worm Chronicles start here:

I read The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen last year. It is quite possibly the best book I’ve read in a very long time. He has two new books of essays out which I will order the minute I post this. Teresa, who was not born until some years after the Vietnam War ended, is as in love with The Sympathizer as I am—and as it should be. Without some knowledge of what’s gone before how should we consider ourselves responsible citizens? A rhetorical question of course with history nearly banished from all education.

Finished Around India in 80 Trains by Monisha Rajesh last night. Delightful, especially since I plan to spend much of my 10 or so days in India on trains. It is great fun to read, although naming and riding on 80 trains for one short book got a little heavy on the naming angle, while I would have liked just a few more details about the various stops…still she accomplished a major task, the kind of thing I would like to do, and she’s a good writer and good person with whom to go train-about.

Enough for one post. I’ll return with many more books and my progress reports. If you have suggestions please let me know.



PLACES…I Have Known


I finished two books week before last; they appeared to be quite different at first but upon further consideration, and for purposes of including them in the same review, I’ll focus on their commonality which is, for me, that they are both about places I love—the Bay Area and the North of the World. It seems, again…for me, that all stories wind up being as much about the places in which they occur as about the occurrences themselves.

The American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst is a well-told tale of Hearst’s revolutionary years, her home territory of San Francisco, California and, to some degree, the whole U.S. during the mid-Seventies. Jeffry Toobin is a great documentarian, building his stories around big events or institutions that define and are defined by the times and places where the actions and moods of the country as a whole are playing out. This story of California in the 70s doesn’t disappoint.

In contrast, 60 Degrees North: Around the World in Search of Home by Malachy Tallack is a lyrical, almost dreamy, travelogue that invites us along as the author contemplates the meaning of home on an improbable journey around the world at the 60th parallel. Tallack is a fine writer and all the ingredients for a great piece of travel literature are here—personal reflection and story, physical description laced with history from places along the 60th parallel. In fact the idea of 60 Degrees North is just so intriguing, and the author and his surroundings so interesting, that the ending let me down just a little. It seemed like he was a little tired of the whole project by the time he reached Scandinavia. Nevertheless it was a fine journey….

I loved traveling to the Bay Area and around the 60th parallel with Toobin and Tallack; they’re all places I’ve experienced on a deeper or slighter scale. I lived in San Francisco from 1989-1992, more than ten years after the days of the  pseudo-revolutionary activities of the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), but the sense of San Francisco as a place where everyone somehow ‘fit’ and where possibilities for the human condition to improve was still strong. It’s a place of richly potent layers of the belief that all things are possible—from laughing and rebuilding in the cracked face of the big quakes to gold-rushing dreams to the summer of love to Berkeley marching and Alice Waters bringing the farm to the table.


 I moved to San Francisco just before the big earthquake of ’89, and the Mission was homeless/artist/refugee/gay heaven and Silicon Valley in Mountain View seemed quite a ways out of town. I took BART everywhere, frequently visiting dancers or potential donors connected somehow with the small black-box theater I was managing so I knew something of the small towns around the area. In other words, as the goofy SLAers drove from hideout to hideout I could visualize those streets and neighborhoods! Of course the random bombings and Berkeley in its radical heyday were in the past but, in my time there, the biggest anti-Iraqi war, anti-Bush peace march of which I know took place and I marched as a volunteer of Global Exchange, directed at that time by Medea Benjamin, one of my woman-warrior heroines. When I go back now to hang out with my granddaughter that rich Bay Area history is ever present and it all still looks familiar and I’m so happy to have been part of it all even for a little while.

Being introduced to Patty Hearst and the characters in her story including her fellow SLA pals or her lawyer F. Lee Bailey (a real jerk) by Jeffrey Toobin was fascinating but I certainly did not come away feeling either warm and fuzzy, admiring, appalled or much of anything for her or any of them. I always sort of admire the rebels whoever they are but there wasn’t a lot about the SLA to admire. They were mostly insecure misfits, rebels without a coherent cause. Patty did what she did and now raises show dogs. Damn, I wanted my revolutionaries to be more substantial than that. All in all a great account of a time and place.

It was one of those lovely ‘sick’ days when I finished these books, switching back and forth between the bed and the couch and between books, which took me from San Francisco to traveling the 60th parallel with Malachy Tallack—and what a great name he has!  Tallack begins in Shetland, the home he loves very deeply and yet feels compelled to escape…and does over the years for a variety of reason…personal searching longing reasons. Shetland lies directly on the 60th parallel, signifying the edge of the serious north and, it turns out, for Tallack offering a logical path around the world…always in search of home but also always exploring the world as experienced along a distinct line separating hardy northerners from the rest of the human race.

Reading travel/adventure literature is like being along on an intimate journey with the author, from the cranky brilliance of Theroux to the thoughtful historiography of Frazier. I am completely enamored of these guys and so many others; not quite so much so with Malachy Tallack. I’ve been trying to figure this out because I love this book and I do like Tallack but I never felt I knew him well enough to be sure he would be one of those perfect companions who shares exactly the right amount of information and degree of closeness you want for the road.

Tallack’s route around the 60th takes him from Shetland to Greenland to Canada to Alaska to St. Petersburg, backtracking to Finland, Sweden and Norway, and finally, ‘home’ again to Shetland. Even though I kept wanting some undefined ‘more’, the language almost more than made up for whatever might be missing. Tallack does have a way with the descriptive phrase. “Silvery lakes appeared, then were gone – rumours among the trees.” “…just the air fussing among the branches.” “Mount Redoubt, fifty miles away, towered above its neighbours, a scarf of cloud wrapped around its middle.” But I wanted some of the mundane as well, how did he get from here to there, how was he financing his trip, how long did it take…just a little more of the infrastructure, please.


It’s a beautiful engaging haunting-in-a-way book. I was right there for the wanderlust of it all, enjoying every bit of the poetic and personal ramblings of the author. Perhaps the ‘more’ is just that I wanted big stories about virtually each mile of the way. An impossible task of course without unlimited money, time, patience. There are after all big wonderful rich stories documenting practically every mile of any one of Tallack’s stops along the way including Maple Leaf Rag: Travels Across Canada by Stephen Brook; or doubling down in Russia, specifically Siberia with Travel in Siberia by Ian Frazier and Midnight in Siberia by David Green. Greenland: The End of the World which I’ve talked about recently offers a view of the southern tip of Greenland where the 60th parallel crosses—and I just visited.

The truth is 60 Degrees North is a wonderful read, enlightening, entertaining, and enjoyable enough to make me whine about there not being another thousand pages of it. Better yet I want to go on that same journey. I absolutely love the idea of following lines of longitude and latitude around the world. If I won millions in a lottery tomorrow I could still do that…if I hurried.




What to read while traveling is not such an easy choice. Completely frivolous versus serious fiction or non-fiction related to regional destinations? For my round-the-world venture last year the central theme was Russia and the trans-Siberian trains so I opted for the serious side, downloading volumes of important Russian literature and Robert Massie’s Peter the Great. Imagine how they bloated the insides of my tiny Nook? And how’d that work out for me…fairly well actually. While the greatest of Russian novels are still tucked unread into that pretty little tablet, I spent quite a few hours on Peter the Great, enough to see him into battles with those dastardly Swedes. Reading and pondering Russia’s rich and formidable history while gazing at the passing taiga was truly a lazily-invigorating intellectual experience. But that was then…. I do fully intend to finish Peter the Great this winter on Albuquerque’s one snowy weekend.

This year in the north, it was mostly a different story.  I started at the very light end of things with Six and a Half Deadly Sins by Colin Cotterill, the latest in a series of light and lively detective novels about a retired Laotian coroner, quite perfect for a small read by the light of the midnight sun on a skimpily-mattressed bunk bed at the end of a long day in Greenland’s rocky hills.

Having begun One of Us: the Story of a Massacre in Norway—and its Aftermath by Asne Seierstad before I left I couldn’t stay away from it too long. Started back again on the flight from Greenland and didn’t put it down until we reached Neset Camping. What a fine and brilliantly-researched and written book about a monster of the first order. Anders Breivik, a psychologically-damaged (possibly with a combination of personality disorders, including narcissistic [just like Trump], borderline and antisocial)  and very smart, with an unstable family life and unlimited time on the internet-of-all-that’s-good-and-bad, slaughtered 77 people, most of them young kids at summer youth camp. Seierstad probes deeply into his life, his character, his upbringing, his place in Norwegian society as well as exploring the social and political world in which this horrendous human being was brought into being. What a thorough and tantalizing character study Seierstad has written—rivals the best of the best of true crime literature and social/psychological non-fiction…think Capote.

I absolutely recommend this book to anyone interested in how mental illness, societal structures and access to weapons and the internet come together to create the kind of mass killings with which we are growing increasingly familiar.

The truth is I stopped reading just as Breivik is heading into Oslo to begin his killing spree. I was in Norway, visiting family, and spending a few days at the most peaceful of all places, Neset Camping, the spot where my dad was born. I could not bear to read of the horror of the day, having come to know a few of the victims through Seierstad’s beautiful and intimate profiles of some who lost their lives that day. I will go back to the book in the next few days as it’s too important and too well-told of a story not to read to the end.

Meanwhile in Oslo, walking by…no I mean into…a bookstore I found a book I had overlooked entirely—The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction this year. I started it immediately after putting One of Us down and just finished a few nights ago after getting home. It has plenty of killers, fictionalized it’s true, but at least as believable and probably as close to non-fiction as we care to go when probing the inner workings of the Vietnam War. It is a mystery, a comic novel in some ways, and a novel of places and times with which the author has intimate knowledge. I believe this may be as true of an account of the end of the war in Vietnam, the immediate aftermath, and some of the cast of Vietnamese and American characters as I’ll ever read.

I didn’t quite know where to go with The Sympathizer originally. It is immediately obvious it is smartly written and an original. It took me just a little while to accept it as a fine novel with comic interweavings; it took me a little longer to believe it’s a crime novel which some reviewers call it—and I’m not sure I still get that although there’s no shortage of crime of the greatest variety. Actually, contemplating it with just a few days hindsight, I believe it’s a brilliant novel full of truths about war and peace; Southeast Asians in their homeland and in America; the American brand of war-making; and basic human nature. And all the time you’re reading you just know you’re getting a straighter story (underlying the fictional comedy of death and destruction) than any of us would care to admit. I’m going on line right now to order the non-fiction companion, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War. For more about the author, go to



A Book Day but First the Morning Travel Report

Since we're going to Russia, seems appropriate to refer to ourselves as Fellow Travelers! ANYWAY, HERE WE ARE ABOUT 100 YEARS AGO. I might be the one with the Minnesota t-shirt.
Since we’re going to Russia, seems appropriate to refer to ourselves as Fellow Travelers! ANYWAY, HERE WE ARE ABOUT 100 YEARS AGO. I might be the one with the Minnesota t-shirt.

The Big 2015 Trip is on my mind. Fellow Traveler Beth and I got together Thursday night to eat better-than-average cheese sandwiches, ingredients Whole Foods all the way (except the Mayo, hate WF Mayo). After all, sophisticated world travelers like us cannot dine on Wonder Bread and Velveeta alone.

We are going to do this. Siberia, Mongolia, the long train ride. Yes. We decided. We drank champagne. Here’s to us.

Sunday is a Word Day, writing about books and other conveyers of words. I’ll get to that in a minute. Meanwhile here’s the almost final outline of the Big 2015 Trip or B15T for short. Maybe not.

Beth and I will meet in Stockholm after my Norwegian sojourn. Ferry and train to St. Petersburg and then about  2 1/2 weeks of Russia, Mongolia and China. That is certainly not much time to take in the world’s biggest countries by land size and population but we do the best we can. We also throw in the country that produced one of the greatest warriors of all times, Genghis Khan, who actually ruled much of those other two big powerful places for awhile.

I think a certain amount of reading is in order for us to even scratch the surface of this huge enterprise; huge in concept at least if not so much in actual time on the road.

Reading a certain amount of history is the obvious way to start. I will reread “Catherine the Great” by Robert Massie I think for starters.

However, considering that Russia was the American nemesis in terms of equality of power and influence for a long time (and who knows about the future?) and that China is rapidly overtaking us in so very many ways for that Number One spot of who is the biggest, baddest, boldest kid on the block, some serious contemporary views are in order as well.

How about “Nothing is True and Everything is Possible” by Peter Pomerantsev (Russia) and “Age of Ambition” by Evan Osnos (China). Hot off the Barnes and Nobel shelves. Remember Amazon makes everything very easy but they aren’t really book people anymore. I think I talked about these books before. Sorry. Hopefully both will be so good they’re worth mentioning twice.

I started to write a comment about saving a rereading of “War and Peace”  for the actual train journey (yes, I did read it once upon a time AND saw the movie). So then I googled greatest Russian novels and have been perusing those lists for the last hour or so. I am happy to say I’ve at least read four of them including a particular favorite called “Quietly Flows the Don” which apparently is a four-volume epoch out of which I’ve read one book so not sure that counts. Anyway I enjoy Russian literature, or did. So I will take at least two or three big fat drama and history and angst-filled novels for the train ride.

Enough for now. I think I’ll try to make the book-Christmas-tree which I saw on Facebook.