Sunday, March 19, 2017

Book Briefs

Catching up on my reading from this year - here's what I've read so far:

Winter's Tale, by Mark Helprin

This book has been laying around the house for awhile and I was reluctant to read it for two reasons.  First, it's 748 pages.  Second, there was that movie with Colin Farrell in it that was advertised as an epic romance.  Luckily, the book has little to do with the movie, and is much better (I'm assuming from reading online reviews of the film, which got a 13% critic rating and 43% audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes).

The book starts out Gangs of New York, with the character Peter Lake drifting around the Four Corners in New York City running from a criminal boss.  While attempting to burglarize a large house one winter night, he comes across Beverly Penn, the daughter of a William Randolph Hearst-type newspaper tycoon, when she is the only resident present of the large mansion Lake has broken into.  They fall in love, but she is dying of consumption.  The Four Corners boss catches up with Peter and he whisked away in a mist never to be seen again.

The book then switches from a historical fiction into a kind of modern fairytale, with time traveling characters, artifact carriers, and demi-god like people questing to find a perfect city that no one has ever seen but seems to exist up in the clouds.  The book then turns straight into magical realism, and then to Christian allegory, tied up with steam engines and the mist, the good city, and a bridge of light.

Going into this book expecting a romance and ready to put it down after 50 pages if I had to, I was incredibly surprised.

The Kindness Handbook, a Practical Companion, by Sharon Salzberg

This is an introduction to Metta practice in Buddhism, or Loving-Kindness.  It is easily understandable, and seems to be directed by the publisher to the self-help, to "transform our daily lives".  The root of the book is Metta, though, and Sharon Salzberg, whose bona fides as a Buddhist teacher are for real, gives a good, basic way to understand and gain some terminology without having to delve too deep into the literature.

A Walk Across America, by Peter Jenkins

In October 1973, Peter Jenkins, along with his dog, a 95 pound Malamute-mix named Cooper, started walking from his college town in New York, with a goal of reaching the Gulf of Mexico, and then across the United States to California.  He did so in order to "find the real America" - the real people that do most of the living and dying in the small towns of America (catch the reference to It's a Wonderful Life? - that was my reference, not Jenkins' - I love that movie and can quote it at length).  Along the way, he meets friendly farmers, and unfriendly police, a true-life mountain man, and lives in a single wide down in a holler with an African-American family in the mountains of North Carolina.

I've been a sucker for these kinds of books ever since I read Blue Highways by William Least Heat Moon when I was 19 or so.  A Walk Across America is a sort of mix between Blue Highways and Bill Bryson's A Walk In the Woods.  The themes are similar - that people no matter where you go in America are generally friendly, helpful, have incredibly rich lives, and are sometimes a little scary.  Also, the narrator is changed by the journey in ways they did not expect. One thing I did expect - Jenkins got caught in several snowstorms, because he decided to start walking south from New York in OCTOBER, through the northern and central Appalachians.  Did he not think to learn some basics about the area before he took the trip, like that it can snow a foot on top of your tent in one night while you're 3,500 up in the Blue Ridge?  Well, spoiler - he survived.

 The great thing about books like A Walk Across America is not what you know is coming, but the scenes and personal stories you learn along the way, along with the narrator, sort of like a photo album, but with a depth of knowledge about these people that you wouldn't have otherwise.

The Dark Tower I: The Gunslinger, by Stephen King

I am still trying to read through all of Stephen King's books and have the first three Dark Tower books at home, so I thought I would try the first volume.  King's two sources of inspiration for these books were the Lord of the Ring Trilogy, and Clint Eastwood's "Man with No Name" from the Sergio Leone Spaghetti Westerns.  Imagine if Frodo was a loner with six shooters, wore a duster and hat, and smoked cigarillos.  The Gunslinger was not a long book, but I'm not sure at this point whether I'm going to follow him on his journey or not toward the Dark Tower.  Think he'll be okay without me.

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