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What I read on my Spring Vacation

June 11th, 2008 · 2 Comments

So, people are always asking me what I’m reading. And usually, I’m reading something for research, or some book someone has sent me for a jacket comment. (I have a two-foot stack of books on my desk right now that I’d love to read and comment on, but then, I would never be able to write another book.) It’s an occupational hazzard or just a hazzard of life, I guess. There are more books to read than you’ll ever have time to read. But when I was in Europe last month, doing a whole month on a couple of carry-on bags, I could only carry one book at a time, and since I was in Italy most of the time, there were very limited English language titles I could buy. So I got to read some books for fun that I might not have picked up otherwise.
First, I was in Siena, a very cool Medieval City in Northern Italy, when I ran out of reading material and so I picked up Northern Lights, the first book in Phillip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” series. It’s a young adult fantasy, and I have some trouble getting engaged in some YA titles, but I absolutely loved this book. (The Golden Compass film was adapted from it, but I hadn’t see it yet, fortunately.) I was never able to finish a Harry Potter book for some reason, although I could certainly see the appeal. But here, for the first time in a long time, I was completely lost in the story. (Perhaps because I was trying to drown out the sound of Italian guys on cell phones on trains. Travel note: Italian guys never shut up. Ever. If they are awake and there’s not food in their mouths, they are talking. Especially if there’s a woman around. I wanted to have a T-shirt made with the letters S.T.F.U. and point to it in these situations, because clearly, even with 3000 years of civilization, they have never learned to Shut The Fuck Up.) Anyway, giant armored talking polar bears. Yes! Northern Lights creates a very rich, alternative world that looks much like early 20th Century England, only more steam-punky, but the main thing you need to know is: Giant Talking Armored Polar Bears. Sure there’s a cute and spunky little Pippi Longstockingesce girl, there are Dickinsean street urchins (which you can now order n sushi bars in London – they are served with English hot mustard instead of wasabi) and a hydrogen-stealing zeppelin pirate, (a species rumored to have once existed in the Castro in San Francisco), but they had me at Giant Talking Armored Polar Bears. Hijinks ensue. (I’m reading the second book in the series now on the Kindle, which sucks ass in so many ways I don’t have time or room to enumerate them, so I don’t know if it’s any good or not because I can’t get past dealing with the stupid machine.)
So then I read Heat, by Bill Buford, which is sub titled: An Amateur’s Adventures ans a Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany. It’s about working in restaurants, but it’s also about learning about food, about obsession, about the restaurant business, a biography of Mario Batali, and an overall history of Italian cooking. This is a terrific non-fictuon book that I probably would have never finished if I hadn’t been traveling, and I would have been poorer for having missed it. Buford is a talented writer, but also has the ability to humble himself as a student, which makes him a good teacher. I learned a lot about food, about restaurants (and I used to work in them) and about Italy. If you eat, you should read this book.
I picked up Michael Chabon’s book, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union in Verona. Chabon doesn’t need me to sell his ability as a writer, he’s won tons of awards, including a Pulitzer for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. This book, however, I think is my favorite. It’s a noir mystery, so Chabon gets to show off his ability to turn a phrase, but it’s also a very high-concept alternative-history, wherein the state of Israel was not established in 1949, but the Jews from the post-war diaspora were relocated to a colony in Sitka, Alaska. So you have a detective story peopled entirely with people who speak in a Yiddish idiom, intermingled with Tlinglet Indians, one of whom, a giant, is raised at the adopted son of the main character, and so is a practicing Jew, right down to his yarmulke and the fringe of his garment. It makes for an extraordinarily interesting story, peppered with Judica and hard-boiled kvetching. If you’re Jewish, you really need to read this book, but if you’re not, you’ll probably learn something in addition to being entertained.
Finally, I read a book off of my “read for comment” pile that I chose because it would fit in my computer bag. Captain Freedom, by G. Xavier Robillard, is a very funny send-up of the super-hero genre. I won’t go into detail because it won’t be out until early next year, but leave it at: “it’s a hybrid of The Tick and Mark Leyner’s, Et Tu Babe. Very sharp, funny social satire. Meanwhile, you can check out G.’s Blog at

Tags: Reading Suggestions

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Cheshire // Sep 1, 2009 at 5:50 pm

    I just bought the Golden Compass today after reading your thoughts on it I hope it’s as good as you say

  • 2 Peter Wiinholt // Nov 9, 2009 at 8:41 pm

    I loved Pullman’s books. Thought they had everything: great action and plot, full characters, and a depth of theme that was very thought provoking. One of the best I’ve ever read.

    Best thing I’ve read this year is a book by Patrick Ness called “The Knife Of Never Letting Go”. It’s YA SciFi. I couldn’t put it down. A story and style I think you’d really appreciate, Chris.

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