Friday, January 31, 2014

50 States: Pennsylvania - ...And Alabama In The Middle

Pennsylvania is a big state and the parts between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh are largely rural.  Some if it is farmland, including vast swaths of Amish Country, but a lot is woodlands and wilderness.

Once on a whim we decided to take a weekend getaway to north central Pennsylvania. On the way we went through State College, the unimaginatively named home of Penn State. I've worked with a lot of Penn State alumni and everywhere they have tchotkes with the Nittany Lion symbol on it. Alumni and fans come from miles around to pose their families in front of it.


The big draw for me was the Creamery, the campus ice cream parlor which sells flavors made on campus. This is the school which Ben and Jerry took a correspondence course from. The Creamery is huge and was especially crowded as this was the day of the annual Spring intramural scrimmage. That is how serious Penn State fans are, they fill the stadium for a scrimmage.


From there we headed up to Wellsboro, a sleepy small town with a couple of cute bed and breakfasts and shops.


Pine Creek Gorge bills itself as the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania which is hyperbolic even by the standards of civic pride. Not that it isn't picturesque, it just isn't quite all that grand.


The valley has a wonderful bicycle trail that goes through it over bridges and past great fishing spots.



After I was bike riding we decided to take the scenic route home only our GPS took us to a road that was underwater. Rather than plow through the rapid stream, we turned around and took a 20 minute detour, not that other drivers weren't more daring.


Native Pennsylvanians sometimes take umbrage when I call their fair state Pennsyltucky but I always use as my defense the existence of rednecks as banjo-theme-songed as anything out of Deliverance.


And when you are north of the Mason Dixon line and feel the need to fly the Confederate battle flag on you canoe, it's not your Southern Heritage you are celebrating. But that takes nothing away from the natural beauty and kind people in that vast swath of land between Paoli and Penn Hills. For after all, it was above a field in central Pennsylvania that a group of Americans thwarted part of the biggest terrorist attack on America in history.



And that is something all Americans can be proud of.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

50 States: Pennsylvania - ...Pittsburgh In The West...

Pittsburgh is only four hours from Baltimore yet we have only been there once, which is a shame since Pennsylvania is one of the closest 50 states to us. And not because it wasn't delightful because it was. Being an industrial town, it bears a lot of similarity to Baltimore but some how seems both more rugged and picturesque at the same time. The best views of the city are from the top of the Duquesne Incline overlooking the city.


And the place has so many gorgeous bridges.


It's a city with some very good museums with huge dinosaurs.


And while the dining scene isn't as trendy as Philly, Pittsburgh isn't without it's charm. Like Primanti Brothers where french fries are a sandwich condiment.


But just walking around the city is full of sights. I've always had a soft spot for the modernist charm of PPG Plaza which had a Heinz (another Pittsburgh trademark) stegosaurus.


Pittsburgh is famous for its fanatical sports fans and with the stadiums right on the river, who can blame them.

But there are always surprises. One morning I saw a woman reading a Kurt Vonnegut book while sitting on the Point State Park Fountain.


And one of my favorite photos of all time is the one I took of this mural on a random downtown wall.

Pittsburgh is a city of many charms which I should try to get to more often. But there are more photos of it here.

Monday, January 27, 2014

50 States: Pennsylvania - Philadelphia In The East...

Pennsylvania is a big state. It's got Philadelphia in the east, Pittsburgh in the west, and as James Carville once described it, Alabama in the middle. I will get to all three regions in my photo tour of the 50 States, but this post focuses on Philadelphia. Philly, as I suppose I'm not supposed to call it, is a Big City. Eclipsed by New Your City just up I-95, it has a bit of a inferiority complex, but it has a lot going for it. One of the institutions that keeps taking us there over and over again is the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
This huge complex has an amazing permanent collection as well as wonderful traveling shows. And while it as a lot of everything, I particularly like the Impressionist and Modernist Wing.

We are often in Philadelphia on Saturdays where the brides come out in droves for wedding photos at or around the PMA.

Philadelphia also has an amazing dining scene. There are too many places for the traveler to ever get to. One of the most beautiful restaurants is 10 Arts which is in the lobby of a bank which has been converted to a luxury hotel.

Even on smaller scales, there are places like Village Whiskey where all the food and drinks are made from their 100+ bottle deep bar.

And that isn't even mentioning the cheesesteaks. Beyond Pat's and Geno's, there are dozens of other places. My favorite is Tony Luke's whose signature sandwich is the Roast Pork With Rabe, which I will pit against a traditional cheesesteak any time.
And of course, Philadelphia has history. Lots and lots of history. Like the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall (here in scaffolding).

Philadelphia is a great town for food, for history, and for culture. Visit if you can.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

50 States: Nebraska

When I tell people I've been to all 50 states, they ask me which one was my favorite. That's a tough question because so many states are wonderful for various reasons. But when they ask which state was my least favorite, that's a much shorter list.

In looking over the last ten states or so to visit, Iowa and Nebraska were right next to each other making them perfect for a twofer. Iowa, as I'll probably get to much later, had hidden charms and was very delightful. Nebraska, much less so.

The hardest part of visiting Nebraska was finding anything to do there. The ground rules of the challenge was that we had to stay at least one night and eat one meal. For the hotel, we stayed at the gorgeous Magnolia Hotel Omaha which was hosting several very fancy weddings that Saturday night. From our hotel window, we could see the Woodmen of the World building as seen in About Schmidt. And down the street the Orpheum theater was advertising the upcoming visit of the Capitol Steps.


For dinner, since we were in Nebraska, I wanted a big giant steak. For that we went to 801 Chophouse which has a giant golden bull in the middle of the dining room.  They also have Maytag bleu cheese potatoes which are delicious.

From Omaha we drove through Lincoln which is both the state capitol and the home of the University of Nebraska. The stadium is just huge.

It was also a clear perfect blue fall day and the absurdly tall and slightly phallic capital building just shown in the sunlight. Even the oddly disturbing farmer on the top of it just glistened.


Finally on our way out of Lincoln we stopped on a whim at the Sunken Gardens which was resplendent in fall colors even if all the flowers were gone for the year.


I hope I haven't insulted any proud Nebraskans. I'm sure the state is a great place to live, I just didn't find much reason to visit there. But you can find more photos here.

Monday, January 13, 2014

50 States: Hawaii

Of the 50 states, my wife and I have visited, Hawaii is the the least recent having been back in April of 1987. I had just graduated from college and as a graduation present my parents gave us tickets to visit them in Hawaii. My dad had been transferred there just after we had gotten married.

In Hawaii we stayed at their house just a block off the main shipping canal for Pearl Harbor. They loaned us the use of a unairconditioned Chevette for going around the island. And that we did. Oahu is the most populous of the Hawaiian islands and it is the one most associated with the public image. The view of Waikiki Beach with Diamond Head in the distance. But even just on that island there are plenty of other things to do.

The most historic place is the Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor. I'm still ironically bemused by the number of Japanese tourists that visit it.


One of the more kitschier things is the Polynesian Cultural Center with it's hula dancers in grass skirts but its lots of fun.


The quieter attractions are on the off shore, which includes surfing and nature trails. I'm not sure if it's still there but we even visited a pineapple plantation. Also on the North Shore is the Byodo-In Temple in a gorgeous tropical setting.


However, my favorite place was Waimea Bay, a sheltered inlet for snorkeling. The fish literally eat right out of your hand if you remember to bring some frozen peas along.


I really want to get back to Hawaii to see even more of the state, particularly the Big Island and Kauai. I hope I can do it sooner than the 26 year it has been.

 Here are more pictures from that long ago visit to Hawaii.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

50 States: Alaska - Anchorage and Eagle River

On our trip to Alaska as part of visiting all 50 states we stayed with a friend who owns a luxury cabin in the woods near the Chugach National Forest looking over the mountains. We used this as our home base for touring Alaska.


For being the states largest city, Anchorage still has an indefinable small town charm. The downtown area is largely skyscraper free with lots small tourist shops and a mix of restaurants.


We even found the house my father lived in when he was in Alaska in the 1950s and which miraculously survived the 1964 earthquake.

Every weekend there is a a farmer and artists market overlooking the train station where the state-run Alaska Railroad goes north to Denali and Fairbanks and south to Whittier and Seward.


Just outside of the downtown is hiking and biking trail which meanders along the coast and past the airport. While this area is full of families and joggers and bikers, it's not uncommon to see moose like we did.


Eagle River is a suburb of Anchorage at the edge of the mountains surrounding the region. At the end of road is a nature center. And it does have plenty of nature. Just getting to the nature center we saw a young male moose just hanging around the parking lot.


The center anchors one portion of the Historic Iditarod Trail which is a 25 mile hiking trail to Gridwood. Not being that ambitious, we just did six miles of the Dew Mound Trail which goes to a serene isolated lake. On the trail we didn't see any bears but saw plenty of bear evidence including sign posts shredded like a cat scratching post as well as the definitive proof of what the do in the woods.


Other easily accessible trails in the area include Eklutna Lake which is the municipal reservoir for Anchorage. This glacier-fed lake has kayaking, biking, and hiking. The area also holds some relics of Alaska's Russian past.


Between Anchorage and Eagle River is the Native Alaska Cultural Center which highlights the culture and history of the native inhabitants. The first thing you learn is that they aren't called Eskimos, or even Inuit. There are eleven distinct groups from five different regions.


 Some regions even still hunt whales.


The grounds of the center have displays of native buildings and crafts.


Inside the building they have native artisans. A major function of the center is teaching local native teenagers the songs and dances of their heritage.


There are even more photos from both Anchorage and Eagle River as well as the Alaska Cultural Center.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

50 States: Alaska - Glacier Coast

 In my review of the 50 States in 50 weeks, some states are going to need more than one post. Part 1 of the Alaska write-up is here

When most people think of Alaska, they think of the parts they can see from the many cruise ships that ply the coast. Since our trip to Alaska went in and out of Anchorage, we had to trek down to the coast to see the glaciers.

On a free day of our trip, the weather forecast was perfect so we decided to day trip to Whittier. On the way we were told to stop by the Alaska Wildlife Center which has all the native fauna where you can see them up close and personal, including bears, moose, musk ox, and caribou.



From there to get to Whittier, you have to drive through a train tunnel which is only open one-way for fifteen minutes each hour. We had just missed a passage, so it gave us time to admire the glaciers and lakes surround the waiting area.

Once through, we managed to just catch the last long glacier boat tour of the afternoon. To say that the views on this bright blue cloudless day were stunning is to understatement. The boat came right up to the glaciers so we could watch them carve into the bay. At one glacier the captain told us that the souvenir maps were outdated because the glaciers had retreated so much in recent years. It's not inconceivable that in just a few decades they might be gone altogether.

But there was more than scenery. The boat passed sea lion hangouts, bird rookeries, eagle nests, and floating sea otters.


After the tour we killed some time walking through the small waterfront area where we had some great food and ice cream before heading home with a return visit to the wildlife conservation.


The next day we embarked by train to Seward on an overnight trip. We basically went straight from the train to the sightseeing boat but the weather was more overcast than the previous day. However, this boat went further into open waters whereas the ones out of Whittier stick to the inner calmer waters of Prince William Sound. It was out on the ocean that we found some humpback whales. They would dive down for fish and then a few minutes later leap up just like in the nature films.



But not all the wildlife was mammoth. We also so the world's most adorable puffins,which it seems come in two varieties.


The Seward area also had some fantastic glaciers, just not as many as Prince William Sound.


The day ended with a build-our-own seafood feast where we ordered just about the entire menu knowing that many of these things came right off the dock.


The second day was the land half of the excursion. We took a tour of a sled dog camp where dozens of dogs practiced and trained for the Iditarod. It seems the major source of income for racers is doing exhibits and rides for tourists in the offseason.



Our tour guide talked us into a rather risky hike to the toe of a glacier which included taking our shoes off and wading through a glacial melt stream while hanging onto bushes on the bank to keep from being swept away.


 Seward was a delightful town with plenty to do for a day or two. Even the train ride there and back was gorgeous.


There is so much the coast of Alaska has to offer. When, not if, we go back we want to go to one of the islands where the grizzly bears live. We priced it out and it is massively expensive just to do the two plane rides needed to get there for just a day trip. But one can dream.

Here are more photos of Whittier, the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, and Seward.

Sunday, January 05, 2014

50 States: Alaska - Denali and Coldfoot

I recently completed a Bucket List type of challenge, which was to visit all fifty states. I completed this goal when I visited Alaska this summer. As luck would have it, a high school friend has retired to a small community just outside of Anchorage and offered to host us for our visit.

We used Eagle River as a center for side trips, the longest of which took us to Denali, Fairbanks, and ultimately to above the Arctic Circle. Wiseman, Alaska is one of the more unique places I have visited. A former Klondike Gold Rush village, it has dwindled down to about two dozen year round residents. The most prominent citizen of Wiseman is Jack Reakoff, a subsistence hunter who also conducts tours to visitors like us. This truly was a visit to a portion of Alaska which is slowly disappearing.


Wiseman is just up the Alaska Highway from Coldfoot, the last truckstop between Fairbanks and Prudhoe Bay. It has the airport we flew into and a dirt lot gas station where the 'ice road' truckers stop for their last indoor toilet for 240 miles.


Above left is the Coldfoot Airport where you can see the Alaska Pipline meandering across the tundra and on the right is the airport office. Below is a panorama of eighteen wheelers at the truck stop.

Our trip to Coldfoot took us by train to Denali National Park. We arrived there on a warm (for Alaska) clear day and impulsively booked a sightseeing flight over Mt. McKinley. We were lucky to do it when we did as we got some good glimpses of the huge mountain before it clouded over for the rest of our trip. 


The main purpose of the Denali stop was for wildlife viewing. It was a eight hour train ride from Anchorage just to get to Denali. There are two types of tour trips through Denali. The first is a 'guided' tour on converted school buses where a tour guide points out wildlife and gives short talks about the park and the area. The second style is an unguided trip which goes a little deeper into the park. In practice, there is little difference between the two. In either case, expect to spend six to eight hours in modest comfort while squinting to see wildlife in the distance.


The biggest realization about Denali is how vast the park is and how sparse the inhabitants are. Between the two days we did manage to see all of what is called the Big Five, bears, moose, sheep, caribou, and wolves. Of these, wolves are the rarest but we did see one roaming on a distant river bank. An Alaskan resident we later met was furious because she has been to to Denali many times and never seen a wolf although she recognized the site where we saw it.



The hotel we stayed at in Denali was affiliated with Royal Caribbean Cruises which seemingly only rents to people over the age of 80. Rather than do the atrocious sounding dinner theater, we took a shuttle bus into Healy where we found a great brew pub. Healy is also the last town Chris Chandless stopped in before the went on his ill-fated Into The Wild hike. The bus where he spent his last four months is less than 20 miles out of town. And the replica of the bus used for the Sean Penn directed movie is on the grounds of the 49th State Brewery.


The central Alaska region truly is still an untamed area full of colorful people, beautiful scenery and incredible wildlife. You owe it to yourself to see it on your own.

Check out more photos of Denali and Coldfoot.

Saturday, January 04, 2014

50 States in 50 Weeks

In the summer of 2006, my wife and I drove across country to pick our son up from Physics Camp. Yes, there is such a thing as Physics Camp and my son wanted to go. He flew out there but we insisted on coming out to pick him up. It took us a week to get to California and then another week to return. When we got back we realized that between that trip and other vacations we had taken, we had been to over half the of the United States.

That made us wonder what it would take to visit all 50 states. The first issue to resolve was what counted as 'visiting' a state. There had been several on our road trip we kind of just blitzed through. For our purposes, we agreed that to truly count a state, we had to spend a night and eat a meal in it.

With that criterion in mind we set out over the next several years to plan vacations which would take us to different regions of the country. Finally, in 2013 we were down to just Idaho, Arkansas, and Alaska left. We saved Alaska for last because it was most spectacular state we still had left and we had a high school friend living there.

Now that we have done this, people ask us what is next. Obviously, the provinces of Canada would be a good challenge. We have been to half of those. Countries in Europe would also be a more ambitious goal. For now we are going to rest on our laurels and take things as they come.

However, for myself, I have set another goal: To recall and document what was interesting and notable in each state. For that I have set a deadline of doing this for every state by the end of 2014. That requires covering about one state a week, hence the 50 states in 50 weeks of the post title. 52 weeks if you count the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, but that is not nearly as catchy.

Some states will be easier than others. There is really not all that much notable about Kansas or Nebraska. Others may take more than one post to do them justice. I'm not sure what if any order I will do them in. Definitely not alphabetical or chronological.

Most of the photos will come from my Flickr account, so if you follow that or my photo postings on Facebook, they will look familiar. Some states may require some digging for photographic evidence because our visits to them predate digital photography.

But it should be fun. Here is a list of all 50 states which I intend to hyperlink to as I write the posts.

So here is to a great adventure. Feel free to travel vicariously with me as I relive a quarter century of travel.

Friday, January 03, 2014

BooksFirst: The Rest of 2013

Books Bought
Insane City by Dave Barry
Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart
They Eat Puppies Don't They by Christopher Buckley 
Chomp By Carl Hiaasen
Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson  
To Build A Fire by Jack London
What is Mathematics, Really by Reuben Hersh 
Bad Monkey by Carl Hiaasen
Silk Parachute byJohn McPhee
The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed by John McPhee
Into The Wild by Jon Krakauer  
The Goldfinch by Donna Tarrt

Audiobooks Bought
Dad Is Fat by Jim Gaffigan
American Savage by Dan Savage
In A Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson 
Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky
Zombie Spaceship Wasteland by Patton Oswalt
Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls by David Sedaris
The High Place by Jame Branch Cabell
Four Fish by Paul Greenberg 
Blink by Malcolm Gladwell
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
Notes From A Small Island by Bill Bryson
I'm A Stranger Here Myself by Bill Bryson
Attempting Normal by Marc Maron 
Rob Delaney: Mother. Wife. Sister. Human. Warrior. Falcon. Yardstick. Turban. Cabbage. by Rob Delaney

Books Read
Insane City by Dave Barry
Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart
They Eat Puppies Don't They by Christopher Buckley 
Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card 
Inferno by Dan Brown
What is Mathematics, Really by Reuben Hersh  
Dragonfly by Bryan Burrough
Into The Wild by Jon Krakauer
Song of Spider-Man by Glen Berger
Some Remarks by Neal Stephenson

Books Heard
I'm A Stranger Here Myself by Bill Bryson 
Zombie Spaceship Wasteland by Patton Oswalt
Attempting Normal by Marc Maron
Rob Delaney: Mother. Wife. Sister. Human. Warrior. Falcon. Yardstick. Turban. Cabbage. by Rob Delaney 


Dave Barry is the king of outlandish Florida satire. His newspaper columns did much to illuminate the craziness that went on in South Florida daily. His Year In Review articles always skewer and dissect the previous year. His new novel is Insane City and takes place in the weekend leading up to a destination wedding in Miami Beach. Plenty of insane things happen involving yuppies, gangsters, erotic dancers, and an orangutan. That the orangutan is perhaps the most vividly drawn character is a concern.

While the novel is wildly funny in places, overall it seems like some punches are pulled. Barry in a reading at Politics and Prose said that everything in the novel could happen. And perhaps that is part of the problem. In a world with Carl Hiaasen and Tim Dorsey, Dave Barry seems oddly tame. We have come so inured to Florida whackiness that mere truthiness doesn't cover it any more.

Catching Fire is the second installment in Suzanne Collin's young adult (there needs to be a better phrase for that genre) dystopian trilogy. Sequels have a problem in that a lot of the world building novelty has already been spent. But the 'universe' of Hunger Games was a bit thin so there was still plenty of world to mine. 

The books are told completely from the perspective of Katniss Everdeen which makes her awareness or lack thereof a more plausible plot device than in the movie version which is more omniscient. That plot involves the reaction of the Capitol to her subverting the Games in the first book. So in the second book they trump a special Survivor reality show style All-Stars Edition. This effectively raises the stakes since all the players are previous winners. 

I won't say the ending is Empire Strikes Back-level unfulfilling because the Games do reach their logical finale but it also clearly sets up the last book (which will be two movies). I find myself much more eager to read the finale than I was to read the second one. The stakes have been raised and the tension and drama have gone past the Game.

For a very different dystopian future than the Hunger Games universe, the grim one in Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart is more plausible and frightening. In the near future, the United States has become an economic vassal of China and the increasingly totalitarian government has a stranglehold on most people's lives.

Lennie is a deluded sad sack employee of a start-up trying to market life enhancing quasi-singularity procedures to the uber-wealthy. He meets and falls in love with a particularly vapid Korean-American woman in her early 20s. The book alternates chapters between the two writing in their online diaries about their relationship which is never quite stable. Meanwhile the ongoing economic crises shatter their lives on a regular basis.

The tone of the book is very reminiscent of 1984 with its increasingly powerful surveillance state. While exaggerated for comic effect, the trends it extrapolates are real and frightening.  

Lately, Christopher Buckley novels have been ambitious failures and They Eat Puppies Don't They is no exception. One half of the book follows a military industrial complex lobbyist as he tries to work up an astroturf campaign to make China a evil empirish enemy. He is aided by his eventual lover, a dynamo super-conservative woman who is everything Ann Coulter thinks she is. Together they manipulate the public relations complex that really runs Washington.

Less successful is the other half of the book which navigates the palace intrigue of the Chinese politburo as players behind the scenes react and pro-act to the provocations from the US. Embedded in all this are attempts on the life of the Dalai Lama. While the intrigue is seemingly well researched it never quite reaches the levels of absurdity needed.  

In anticipation of the movie release, I went back and reread Ender's Game which I first read in the late 1980s and I even met Orson Scott Card at a science fiction convention.

The book holds up surprisingly well considering that some of the key plot devices such as internet chats and message boards were glimmers in a programmer's eye when the book was written.

Somewhere along the line, this novel got marketed to the middle school set, and while I can see how the young uber-competent protagonist fits in, there is a lot that older readers can appreciate as well. The character of Ender Wiggins as he battles both the military bureaucracy and the aliens faces a lot of ethical questions. The biggest question of course is whether the ends justify the means. And if the ends were justifiable at all.

I look forward to reading this again in another twenty years or so.

Dan Brown is one of my guilty pleasures. Although 'pleasure' is perhaps too strong a word. It's more of a hate relationship. He is such a bad, bad writer. Every page is cringe inducing. The techno-McGuffins are always warmed over bad science fiction tropes. In Inferno, it is a super-virus destined to destroy the population, a conceit that was old when previous top-hack Michael Crichton used it decades ago.

But I am fascinated by the obsessive Frommer-esque travelogue quality of the narration. Not an action sequence goes by where the artwork in the room where the life and death struggle isn't listed in deep catalog. The endless travel trivia just entrances me. In this book, the sequences take place in Florence and Venice, two place I have been to recently, and Istanbul, a place I am dying to find an excuse to go to.

The bad taste in my mouth Brown's more than purple prose leave is countered by how it whets my appetite to see and do the things Robert Langdon misses out on while saving the world once again.
A nearly forgotten footnote in the history of the space program is a series of joint missions where US astronauts spent months living on the post-Soviet Russian Mir space station as practice and prelude to the International Space Station. 

Dragonfly by Bryan Burrough chronicles the calamities that afflicted those missions. First of all, by all accounts the Mir station was dump held together by baling wire and sheer persistence. Also, the Russian space program was this weirdly dysfunctional system where the real power was hidden and the cosmonauts had odd economic incentives governing their activities.

On one mission, a major fire nearly kills everyone on board only to be stunningly covered up by the Russians and ignored by the press. But the centerpiece of the book is about the incident where a runaway supply capsule cripples the station and punctures the skin of the vessel. By all rights, except for some heroic action, everyone on the station could have been killed. 

On the heels of the movie Gravity, this book which was written well over a decade ago describes in eye-opening detail just how dangerous space travel is and that fiction can rarely hold a candle to reality.

While in Alaska this summer, it seems everyone I met had a strong opinion about Christopher McCandless, the subject of the book Into The Wild by Jon Krakauer as well as the Sean Penn movie based on it. The general consensus was that he was a complete idiot with no clue what he was doing. One tourist plane pilot said that his 12-year-old daughter could have lasted longer in the wilderness.

Reading the book, Krakauer while not refuting these opinions offers more nuance and insight into what would drive a person into attempting such a foolhardy scheme. Greatly padding his original magazine article because there really is not much to know about McCandless, Krakauer muses on what motivates people to perform extremely foolhardy stunts. In a long personal piece he describes how he almost died himself failing to do a mountain ascent that had never been done.

The real story may never be known, but I now have a greater appreciation for both the Alaska wilderness and the human spirit.

I am perhaps one of the few people who appreciate what Julie Taymor was attempting to do with her much maligned Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark musical. While making a thrilling theatrical show, she was also trying to explicate the myth-making process. One person who kind of understood that was her cowriter Glen Berger who has written Song of Spider-Man to give his side of what is generally considered the biggest disaster in theatrical history despite a three year run on Broadway.

As a first person story, it is very self-aggrandizing apologia, often anchored in false self-deprecation. He does his very best to show that he is a victim. He even literally tells how his dog died while the show was in production. Very early in the book he talks about how he was told to support Taymor but he turns out to be her Judas. He is the one who survives the putsch which ousts her only to whine about how the script doctor who takes her place gets full billing despite only being on the job for a few months.

I have read literally thousands of pages of Neal Stephenson so it amused to no end that one of the items included in his grab bag collection Some Remarks is only one sentence long. The unfinished (and barely started) novel is "Under-Constable Proudfoot" and in this era of cross-genre thrillers, he is leaving a gold mine on the table.

The centerpiece of the collection is his epic essay about transoceanic underground cables "Mother Earth Mother Board" which first appeared in Wired Magazine. I read it when it first came out and have re-read it a few times online. The research he did informed several subplots in Cryptonomicon.  It never ceases to amaze me how prescient and important this essay was.

The other items are also interesting, although he is never going to convince me to use a treadmill desk. 

Bill Bryson books make for great listens when traveling as I have done just that with several of his books. This collection was a great Audible deal (no link since I don't get a kickback) since it included three of his earlier books. Unfortunately the only one I made it all the way through was I'm A Stranger Here Myself as the other two were just a little too twee and dated. 

I'm A Stranger... is a collection of essays detailing his return back to the United States after decades of living in Britain. The observations are sharp, trenchant and funny. He does have a particularly good way of pointing out the foibles of American culture. Since these were originally articles, there is some repetition of jokes and anecdotes but he makes for a very funny tour guide, even to his home country.

Patton Oswalt is one of those fringe pop cultural touchstones who is either everywhere or nowhere depending on your particular bent. For me he seems ubiquitous, even having a recurring role on the under-rated space-opera Caprica. So it just seems fitting that his memoir is titled Zombie Spaceship Wasteland.

I was surprised and delighted to learn that he grew up in the Northern Virgina DC suburbs which made his stories of his misspent youth especially relevant. Despite his being perhaps a decade younger than me I recognize the nerd-adjacent scene he traveled in. The middle part of the book is also a particularly good insight into the process of becoming a standup comic.

The book never quite comes together and perhaps that is because Oswalt is still finding his way.

Far more established is Marc Maron, a formerly forgotten comic, who has made a second career as an insightful and probing podcast interviewer. The title Attempting Normal is just so completely dead-on.

Maron spends a lot of time going over his drug-fueled road to ruin that was his early career. It shows that he has genuinely earned his world weariness. He honest and candid yet oddly optimistic.

He does protest too much about his relationship with cats. He clearly is a cat person, for better or for worse.

As stand-up comic with a podcast, a book, and a TV series all plowing the same ground, I felt a little too familiar with some of his stories as he has used much of this in either his act or in interviews either on his show or with others. But he is still a fascinating character.

Substance abuse and recovery is a disturbingly common theme in books by comics and Rob Delaney with his Dada-esquely subtitled book
Rob Delaney: Mother. Wife. Sister. Human. Warrior. Falcon. Yardstick. Turban. Cabbage is almost archetypically true to form. The centerpiece of his recovery story leads up to the car accident which nearly kills him.

Like Maron, he pulls no punches in either describing his early excesses or the hardships of recovery. Like Maron, he is a person whose career was written off but discovered stardom in a new medium, in this case Twitter. Lately now that he has become the posterboy for tweeting one's way to the top, I find his stuff less spontaneous and edgy. But that is the curse of anyone who has ever followed an obscure band only to watch them hit it big. 


I don't usually do any follow-up thematic summaries at the ends of these posts, but since I've bundled eleven months of reading into a single article, I can't help but notice some patterns. One is that I really didn't read that much this year. Perhaps half as much as previous years. I ought to go through old posts and pull some stats out.

Secondly, I seem to be very comfortably ensconced into a few niches. I probably need to widen my netcasting a little bit but I'm not sure how to do that. There is just so much out there and life is too short to read bad books for the practice any more.