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Travelogue Book Reviews

The following books were started and (for the most part) completed while circumnavigating the globe May-November 2008.

  • Plato and a Platapus Walk into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes
    Tom Cathcart and Daniel Klien

    (Philippine Islands)

I’ve always had a soft spot for philosophy. I’ve always had an even softer spot for bad humor and classic puns. Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar is the perfect example of the intersection of the two.

Going into it, I had hoped that it would be a little more definitive and clear about the philosophy aspects it was dealing with, but it was no surprise that Plato and a Platypus was really a lighthearted overview of most philosophical viewpoints, never delving too deeply into any given one.

Perhaps the largest flaw of the book was its inability to explain things. Every once in a while, it would run up against a difficult term or idea and, rather than pause for consideration, it would offer up a joke as an example of the way it functions, often funny, but rarely clear. Still, if you have a basic understanding of philosophy, Plato and a Platypus is a lovely little survey. And the jokes aren’t bad either.

  • Jennifer Government
    Max Barry
    (Philippine Islands/Guam)
  • Choke
    Chuck Palahniuk

    (Guam)

Ever since Fight Club was foisted upon me by the brilliance of the Edward Norton and Brad Pitt film I’ve felt the need to read more Palahniuk. Choke was, by and far, the most recommended of his other works. With the upcoming release of the already buzzing film version starring the always impressive Sam Rockwell, I dove into this book as soon as I arrived in Guam.

Choke, it was no surprise to find, was a tale of blatant flaw and heroic desire. [the main character] scams random strangers by choking and allowing them to save him, thereby giving them a sense of heroicism and causing them to feel the need to watch over him by giving him small donations to assist in the life they’ve now given them. Though he frames it as a scam, he truly believes he is giving these people the greatest moments of their lives, all the while his own life spiraling downward as he uses prison inmates visiting sexaholics anonymous meetings and random strangers for emotional and sexual gratification without the reliance he weans from his choking victims.

I was told before I began that Choke is typically the favorite Palahniuk book of males, yet I found no real joy in reading it. I was intrigued by the character, but everything exploded so neatly and perfectly, from the revelations of his dying mother, to the strange romance with the doctor, to the stonework building his friend was constructing. And yet I never really got the sense that the book knew where it was going or why. There were plenty of insightful quips and the seemingly standard Palahniuk lines of listed items showing the depth of the narrator’s neurosis, yet it felt lost, wandering, forced at times.

Perhaps it’s a tribute to the strength of the author that I didn’t want to put the book down despite my lack of caring where it was going. Then again, given my enjoyment of Fight Club, maybe the more grandiose themes of that book tempered my expectations of this one. Whatever the case, my excitement for the film is gently waning and my response to the novel tepid at best.

  • Will to Power
    Friedrich Nietzsche

    (Guam)

Nietzsche’s seminal work is, as I should’ve expected, the brunt of nihilism wrapped up in an archaic little bow. The biggest revelation for me was the organization. Rather than chapters or paragraphs, the book often chose to run in lists and collections of thoughts, which were sometimes seemingly random until cohesion emerged in the proceeding explanation.

The denseness of the book, as well as my familiarity with the topic through works far more accessible, made this a difficult book to push through. I was often tempted to toss it aside as most of the topics covered are barely applicable in their original form when compared to the philosophers and philosophies of the 20th century that expanded and drew on Nietzsche’s doctrine of nihilism, inevitability, and a proposed solution. Still, as I completed reading it, the importance of the work was clear.

I won’t say that this is something everyone should run out and read, but for those of you who are scholars of philosophy or enjoy finding historical context to ideas played upon in thousands of iterations since, Will to Power is a worthwhile, if difficult, endeavor.

  • You Are A Miserable Excuse For A Superhero
    Bob Powers
    (Guam)

I admit that I belittled the idea at first. An adult Choose Your Own Adventure book? You’ve got to be kidding me.

But my initial reaction , one of derision and mocking irony, was wholly unfounded. And when I finally opened up the book and read through a few hilarious scenarios, I was sold.

The basis of the book is that you, a 30-something waiter with no prospects of success, received a phone call from kidnappers who have snatched the girl you went on a reasonably good first date with the night before. Suddenly, despite your desire to not be attached at all to anything of import, you’re thrust into a situation in which you might find success, you might die, or you might end up watching videos of yourself masturbating. The options are nearly endless, and in the two days it took me to get through every thread, I never once questioned the value of such a strange book.

  • Lolita UNFINISHED
    Vladamir Nabokov

    (Guam)
  • Snow Crash
    Neal Stephenson

    (Philippines/Thailand)

Perhaps the most highly recommended book I’ve ever picked up, I had more people than a packed house at a three ring circus telling me to read Snow Crash. Given the pedestal within the genre of cyberpunk it inhabited, it was something I had to eventually pick up. Besides, how could I not love a book whose main character was a black hacker sporting samurai swords and the name Hiro Protagonist.

The beauty of the book is the tongue in cheek humor, much in the vein of a good pulp noir novel. The tough talking main character, while certainly a badass in his own mind, is merely a glorified pizza delivery boy at the start of the adventure. By the end, he had grown into the titles his business card granted him.

Throw in an interesting plot about religion, history, truth and commercialism, and you have a book I couldn’t put down. Hell, I arrived in Bangkok and the first thing I did was sit down to finish reading it. While the plot occasionally gets a little weird and the explanations occasionally long winded, Snow Crash’s brilliant cyberpunk mystique remains my favorite book read so far this trip.

  • Yiddish Policeman’s Union
    Michael Chabon
    (Thailand)

I’m a self-proclaimed Jew. I’m circumcised and had a bar mitzvah. I’ve spent countless hours in Hebrew school, with admittedly little show for it. And I spin a good yarn thanks to the humor and culture I grew up in. It was inevitable that I would pick up this witty tome by humorist Michael Chabon, whose contributions to McSweeney’s have always struck me in a very refined way.

The Yiddish Policeman’s Union combined my love of Jewish humor, my desire to learn more Yiddish, my love of pulp noir detective stories, and my steady diet of science fiction into a sprawling mystery that sucked me in instantly. The glossary of Yiddish terms at the back was invaluable, though hardly necessary, as most words fell in contextually explanatory positions.

[the main character] is  a detective in Sitka, the main Jewish city in the Jewish homeland in Alaska. He’s awoken late one night by the manager of the hotel he’s been living in to take a look at one of his neighbors shot through the head, a game of chess left standing as the only real clue as to what’s going on.

With this simple start, a complex story unfolds, leading up and down a strange history that could’ve come true if only a few small details of real life events in the 1940s had changed. Needless to say, I was impressed, as Chabon’s novel is exactly the sort of writing that I aspire to.

  • Invisible Monsters
    Chuck Palahniuk
    (Thailand)

As the summer of Chuck continued, I found myself bothered and disgusted by Invisible Monsters, a strange novel that uses a similar interjecting style to Choke, the former’s lists of poses mimicking the latter’s lists of diseases. The narrator this time around is a woman, though I hardly feel as though Palahniuk did it well. Instead, she comes across as a man, and given the prevalence of gender issues contained in this novel it may very well have been on purpose.

Still, the plot and the small interjections by the characters had enough interest in them that I kept on reading and was rewarded by a dynamite ending. Admittedly, things wrapped up just a little bit too neatly, but I found I was so entranced by the characters finally admitting the truth that I didn’t mind. For the most part, the ways in which the plot intersected was surprisingly predictable. All but one point which surprised me as much as it did one of the characters.

The bouncing style that placed different events and different times next to each other for random reasons worked rather well, keeping me on my toes. Of the three Palahniuk books I’ve read so far, the redemption I felt at the end was more than enough to make this my favorite.

  • Dexter Darkly Dreaming
    Jeff Lindsay

    (Thailand)


  • The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
    Michael Chabon
    (India)


  • The Gunslinger (Book 1 of the Dark Tower Series)
    Stephen King
    (India)


  • Cryptonomicon
    Neal Stephenson
    (India/Turkey/Greece/Germany/Czech Republic)


  • Ender’s Game
    Orson Scott Card
    (Czech Republic/Germany)


  • Fortress of Solitude
    Jonathan Lethem
    (Belgium/France)


  • Foundation
    Isaac Asimov
    (France/Holland)


  • Foundation and Empire
    Isaac Asimov
    (Holland/Germany)


  • My Name Is Red
    Orhan Pamuk

    (Germany/United States)