I've finished three books recently without reviewing them, and I should rectify that oversight.
First was Undestanding Arabs, which I picked up back when I thought I'd be in Iraq right now instead of whiling away the hours at work desperately waiting for something interesting to happen. It was the first of the pre-Iraq books I decided to read, and as such is also the only one I've finished so far. I can say safely even without having finished/read the other books, this is the one of the four that I would have brought with me overseas.
Obviously this isn't the sort of book you're just going to pick up and read for fun. But if you find yourself heading toward that part of the world, this book (now available in a new edition from September 2005) is basically the standard (not to say only) text on Arab culture written for Westerners. It's a great primer on dealing with Arabs on a personal level. Would that I had reason to use it.
Next up was Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, by Philip K. Dick. This is the novel upon which the movie Blade Runner was (loosely) based. It's a nice slim book and I took it with me during the fantastic trip to Valdosta a couple weeks ago. I read the whole book in one afternoon and another evening. I need to rent Blade Runner now and watch it again, but the differences in the two are significant.
This was a great book. I won't insult you with a synopsis since if you're reading this blog you are almost certainly well-read and well-screened enough to know how the story goes, from one source or another. If you only know the movie, and you liked the movie, you ought to pick this up. It's so much deeper, but typical of Dick it showcases a very ambiguous morality. I can't recommend this book too strongly to fans of sci-fi or dystopian fiction, though I'll admit non-fans would find many of the book's conceits a little to bizarre. Still, this is probably the best novel I've read in the past year.
And just today I finished Bill Bryson's Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America. I picked this one up to take home last weekend because I wanted something ligther than the history of the middle east to read. Today I read the last two-thirds of it. Bryson is terrifically readable, funny and light and, for such a recent discovery of mine, one of my current favorites among writers. After Mother Tongue, I was really looking forward to this.
And it was light and engaging and humorous and a little sad, but it wasn't as great a read as I'd hoped--mostly because I couldn't get past Bryson's condescension toward so many of the people he met. Certainly not everyone you meet is as wise or warm or witty as yourself, but neither is everyone necessarily less so because they come from a different region or speak with a different accent. For an American, even one who when this was written had been living in England for over 12 years, Bryson comes across almost a little bit too Euro-trash, and that was disappointing.
Nonetheless, he makes some brilliant comments, especially considering that they're now over 15 years old. In particular he seems disappointed that every town in America is becoming the same--they're all Anytown U.S.A. He is disturbed by the tendency of the towns immediately abutting National Parks to become seedy tourist traps and is fairly negative toward tourist traps in general. He has some very insightful comments about the NPS' administration of the National Parks, which he sees as quite poor.
The book has been compared to Travels with Charley and Blue Highways. Not having read Blue Highways I don't know how to compare it, and Charley is almost 45 years old, so some of the insights show their age (plus I don't like poodles. Or Steinbeck). But before I started this blog, I read a book by Stephen Coonts called The Cannibal Queen. Coonts is no Steinbeck (or Least-Moon or even Bryson, frankly), but his book is perhaps the most recent version of the schlepping-through-America genre that started with de Tocqueville (who's book is still the best of the type), and to be honest with you, I like Queen better than Lost Continent. A 1941 Stearman is way cooler than any Chevette ever made, and Coonts manages to be less critical of the places he visits, possibly because as a former military man he has an easier time than Bryson looking past America's faults. While I chide this tendency in my colleagues, in print it's a much more attractive tendency than Bryson's condescension.