Thursday, July 30, 2009

Review 29: Dresden Files 01 - Storm Front

Storm Front by Jim Butcher

"Hell's Bells" count: 3

Back in 2006, I made a trip to the States for a wedding. It was good fun, and I figured that while I was there, I'd go and see some other friends and family up and down the East Coast. While in the Albany Area of New York, I was taken to a fantasy/science fiction bookstore so that I could fill up on books - a precious commodity, given their expense and rarity here.

What I found when I walked in was shocking - I had no idea what to buy. I was so far out of the loop of SF/F news that I didn't know who was good, who was terrible, which mammoth mega-series were worth investing in and which were better off avoided. So I did the perfectly rational thing - I asked my friend for advice.

With very little delay, he picked this book out for me and said, "You need to read this. But," he warned, "you'll want to read them all." I hemmed and hawed a bit, did some mental calculations of suitcase volume and density, and purchased the first three books of the Dresden Files series.

My friend was right. I plowed through those books like nobody's business and then fumed that I couldn't go right into the next one. Any series that makes you practically itch for the next book has definitely got something going for it, and it all starts right here.

Harry Dresden is a wizard for hire in Chicago. He is, as far as he knows, the only wizard for hire, and this is both good and bad. Good in that he gets all the weird cases that only a wizard can really handle, plus the bonus of being a standing consultant for the Chicago police department. Bad in that he's pretty much on his own, wizard-wise, in a city that is just aching to go supernaturally crazy.

As this book opens, Dresden is trying to scrape enough together for the rent, and he's hit with two cases at once - a woman looking for her missing husband and the police looking to find out who made two people's hearts burst from their chests. Chasing either lead means danger, but he can't afford not to take either one. He needs the money, and he needs to keep a good relationship with the police....

Someone, somewhere is breaking the most sacred laws of magic. Binding, killing, coercion and destruction, all uses of magic that are utterly forbidden by the White Council, the mysterious council who oversees the world's wizarding community.

In the best traditions of gritty detective fiction, the two seemingly unrelated cases eventually merge into one very dangerous investigation, one which challenges Harry and his allies to do more than they'd ever done before.

Butcher has done some fantastic work here for a debut novel, and set the stage for a long and fruitful series. He sets up his world in an efficient fashion, giving us everything we need to know in order to get the story he's about to tell, and dropping little hints of what's to come. I really have no complaints.

Well, maybe one. But it's small, all things considered.

As Dresden tells us in his narration, the world he lives in is one that has seen magic pushed back for the better part of a century in favor of Science. "The largest religion of the twentieth century," he calls it, and that kind of set off a little red flag in my head.

I've heard the old "Science is just another religion" canard before, and I know that it's nonsense - science doesn't require faith, it doesn't require any kind of leaps or hope or suspension of disbelief. Religion certainly does - no one prays with absolute certainty that their prayer will be answered - there's always a chance (and often a good one) that nothing will come of it. But hold a stone a few feet off the ground and drop it, and that stone will damn well fall to the ground. Moreover, it'll fall at the same speed when dropped from the same height, no matter who drops it. Every time. No praying, no intercession. Just science.

What makes Dresden's comment even more interesting is how scientific he is in his working of magic. He has a work space in his basement that he refers to as a lab, and explains to the reader the way that magic works. The principles of Circles, and the necessary elements that constitute a potion. When Harry talks about the power of True Names, he tells us about a known effect of using someone's name for spellcraft, one that will work for any wizard, so long as he knows how to say the person's name the right way.

As an interesting aside to that, Harry gives us his full name - Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden - right at the beginning of the book, on page two. This would imply an interesting level of trust between the narrator and the reader, as the character knows full well the dangers of letting one's full name get out of your hands.

He talks about rules and laws, cause and effect, as things that he's studied and remembered because they work. If magic were truly non-scientific, there would be no way for Harry (or any other practitioner) to predict what would happen when a spell was cast. But when he draws a circle and gives it a bit of a charge, Harry knows exactly what will happen. This alternate world may have sources of energy that ours doesn't, and certain physical laws that vary from ours, but science is no less present in Harry's magic than anywhere else.

So, that one little nitpick aside, I found this to be a very enjoyable book. What's more, it was an excellent introduction into what has turned out to be a fantastic series. I can't wait to see how it all turns out in the end....

"There is no truer gauge of a man's character than the way in which he employs his strength, his power."
Harry Dresden, Storm Front

The Dresden Files on Wikipedia
Storm Front on Wikipedia
Jim Butcher on Wikipedia
Harry Dresden on Wikipedia
Storm Front on
Jim Butcher's homepage

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Review 28: Confessions of an Economic Hit Man

Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins

This book probably would have enraged me if I hadn't already more or less known what it was talking about. As it was, I was resigned and depressed.

The book is a short autobiography of an Economic Hit Man (EHM) who saw the error of his ways. The idea of the EHM, as he describes it, is to manipulate the governments of developing nations to accept huge loans from the IMF and the World Bank based on inflated projections of future income, under the theory that they would experience huge economic gains from the projects - things like electrical grid upgrades, roads, dams and the like. These nations would then become indebted to the United States and forced to give business to US corporations, thereby effectively putting that nation under US control. He calls it the Corporatocracy, and he was a part of it. He traveled around the world to manipulate cash-strapped world leaders into signing their nations over to the control of US corporate interests.

He describes himself as one of the earliest generations of EHM, the ones who knew exactly what they were doing. Perkins describes his entry and rise in the EHM world as a series of decisions inspired by coincidences, at least at first. His childhood was marked by clear class differences, growing up in a small New England town and going to school with the children of the super-rich. His family taught at the school, thus gaining him both entry into classes and a raging feeling of inferiority and anger.

After doing a stint in the Peace Corps, he was approached to work for the NSA. Following the NSA screening, he was tapped to work for MAIN, an engineering company who, in the 60s and 70s, was at the forefront of modernizing developing nations. At their expense, of course.

When Perkins was initiated into this world of money and power, he was explicitly aware of what he was doing: he would vastly overstate the economic potential of, say, a hydroelectric dam project, leading to the leaders of governments such as the Philippines, Columbia and Venezuela taking out massive loans based on expected future returns. When those returns didn't come in - and they never did - they were forced to make concessions, which always, always benefited the interests of MAIN and other US corporations. By doing so, they became part of the American Economic Empire, without one politician ever laying a finger on it.

It's considered the softest method of empire-building. Take a country that needs money to help its people, and arrange so that the government has to spend upwards of 50% of its GNP repaying loans. The people get nothing, a few rich leaders become richer, and US corporations spread further out into the world. All forwarding the cause of US economic interests. For Americans, it means cheaper gas, food and raw materials. For the corporations involved, it means higher and higher profits. For the people of the developing countries targeted, it means poverty and disenfranchisement.

The EHMs don't always succeed, though - remember Panama? We had the canal, and made lots of money off it. Until the leader of Panama, in the 70's, decided to take it back. Omar Torrijos was that rare breed of third world ruler who honestly wanted to help his people, and he knew that the best way to do that was to re-assert control over the Panama Canal. He knew what the EHMs were up to, and wouldn't have any part of it. In his recollections of their meetings, Perkins sees him as the kind of leader every country should have, and it was his example that led him towards leaving this world. His example and, of course, his death.

When the EHMs fail, the jackals come in and people start dying in "mysterious" plane crashes. Torrijos was replaced by Manuel Noriega, who was in our pocket, but not quite far enough. He didn't toe the line that Washington wanted, so we made him up to be the Hitler of South America, invaded Panama without cause (see, Iraq is not a new thing) and took him back to the US. The result? The canal is effectively back under US control, and any advances that Torrijos might have made are gone.

One of the reasons Perkins left the industry and wrote this book is because he's worried about the future of the EHM. Not that it's fading, but that it's getting stronger. With the ever-increasing pace of globalization, governments are jockeying with corporations for power around the world, and the EHMs are coming with them. But the new breed is different. The people following in Perkins' footsteps honestly believe that they are trying to help these beleagured countries They see themselves as part of a great march towards progress, never really noticing that the progress only really benefits them.

One thing I noticed about this book. While I don't doubt Perkins' honesty and intentions in writing this book, I do wonder how much of the "torn between two worlds" persona he adopts is honest. Throughout the book, he talks about his moments of indecision, of inner conflict as he tries to justify the things he's doing. He talks about meeting dissidents in Iran, going to anti-American puppet shows in Bali, encountering supercilious Canal Zone residents in Panama, all of which serves to make him look like he's much more thoughtful than the average corporate warrior.

Perhaps he's representing himself sincerely as a person caught between his moral code and his pride. He did, after all, leave the business - and the vast amount of money and power that it offered him. But I kept thinking, how much of that conflicted feeling was real, and how much was remembered? It's a small point, but one that kept nagging at me. It doesn't add to or detract from his argument, however.

This is not a happy book, and it's pretty likely to piss you off. It's not about the US government, mind you - it's about US corporations assisting the government in its imperial ambitions. It's about the marriage of economics and governance and its dark, dark offspring....

"Confessing a sin is the beginning of redemption."
-John Perkins, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man

Confessions of an Economic Hit Man on Wikipedia
John Perkins on Wikipedia
John Perkins' website
Confessions of an Economic Hit Man on

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Review 27: Three Cups of Tea

Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin

There are times when people recommend books to me, saying "You need to read this," or, "I think you'll enjoy this book," and I take their recommendation seriously. I'll put it on my Amazon wish list and then go on with my life. If I see it on the bookshelves, and my mood is right, I might pick it up. I take recommendations seriously, of course, but I know that they're usually not imperative, in the same way that, say, a doctor recommends quitting smoking because your lungs resemble overcooked corned beef hash.

In this case, however, the recommendation was done by my stepfather, who gave a copy of this book to everyone for Christmas. Seriously, we were opening presents on Christmas morning, and by the time I picked up his present, the whole room chimed in with, "Three Cups of Tea!" Which, indeed, it was. To me, this counts as high praise and an imperative recommendation. I don't usually buy books for people unless I'm damn sure they'll like it, and I have never bought multiple copies of the same book to give to everyone I know. Even though this was a book I probably never would have bought for myself, I bumped it up in my reading queue and proceeded to devour it in a few days.

Now I understand.

This is the story of Greg Mortenson, an American man with a passion for climbing, and his story begins with a failure. He wanted to climb K2, the second-highest peak in the world and arguably one of the toughest, as a tribute to his sister who had died some time before. He attempted the climb in 1993 but did not succeed. Indeed, on his way down the mountain, he got lost, and getting lost in that part of the world was close to a death sentence. In the cold and rarefied air, where he couldn't be certain of living through the night, Mortenson's life was saved by a tiny village called Korphe in northern Pakistan.

The residents of Korphe took in this starving, half-frozen American man and helped him get well enough to return home. They showed a stranger great compassion, sacrificing resources that they would need for themselves in order to get through the winter. That in itself would make for a great story. But what happened while in Korphe is the trigger for everything that came next.

While the elder of the village, Haji Ali, showed his village to their guest, Mortenson was stunned by their poverty. Women and children died young, from diseases and problems that are unknown to us in the west. They had no electricity and no running water, and lived lives that were unforgivably hard. But what struck him hardest was the children trying to learn. They had no school - the government of Pakistan was extraordinarily cheap when it came to funding education in its more far-flung villages - but the children were still trying to learn. They would sit outside in the cold and the wind, scratching their numbers in the dirt, trying to learn the lessons that their part-time teacher left for them.

Upon seeing that, Mortenson made a promise to Haji Ali and the village of Korphe: he would build them a school.

I imagine that, looking back on that moment, Mortenson himself is probably amazed by how radically those few words - "I will build a school." - would change not only his life, but the lives of thousands more people around the world.

The book is an account of how Mortenson went about building the school for Korphe, and what resulted from that effort. Just getting that school built was a challenge, financially, personally and spiritually. In addition to the basic fund raising problems that would accompany any such effort, he also had to deal with haggling in a foreign land, keeping other villages from stealing his resources to build schools for themselves, religious fatwas against him, and the discovery that before he could build a school, he would have to study up on bridge-building. Indeed, even once he got all the material into the village, there were cultural divides that put the whole process in jeopardy.

In order to fulfill his promise to Haji Ali and the people who had helped make the school possible, Mortenson had to learn how to work with the people of northern Pakistan, and that's where the story gets interesting. He did not come to them as a savior. He came to them as a partner. He paid special attention to observing their customs and respecting their ways. Though not a Muslim, Mortenson learned how to pray as a Muslim and how to use the tenets of Islam to ensure that he didn't sabotage his own efforts. He made it very clear that the school he built - and all the schools that came afterward - were not his schools. They were built by and belonged to the people of those villages, the people of Pakistan and Afghanistan. By helping them help themselves, Mortenson became a figure of hope for many remote and uneducated parts of Central Asia.

His charitable works aside, there is another level to this story, one that the writers take great pains to illustrate.

When 9/11 hit, many people's first reactions - including mine - were rage. And we thought of our response the way nations throughout history have: a violent one. Planes and guns and bombs, that's what would show them who's boss! But as time passed, and the initial rage wore down, it became pretty clear that violent retaliation probably wouldn't work on the kind of people who were willing to kill themselves in the name of ideology. There was no way that military attacks would eradicate terrorism. They might allow us to reduce their resources and their personnel, and it looks really good on CNN, but the root causes of terrorism would remain: ignorance and hatred.

I remember telling someone that if we want to stop terrorism, we have to eliminate the reasons for terrorism. We have to educate people and raise their hopes for the future. We have to show them an alternative to the mullahs and the radicals and show them that it is better to raise themselves up than to tear other people down.

Naturally, in a post-9/11 world, I was mocked for my bleeding-heart, peacenick ideas and told that I didn't know anything about anything.

I am gratified to know that I was not the only one thinking that, and even more grateful to know that people like Mortenson and his Central Asia Institute were working with the same goal in mind. By building schools where there were none, by educating women and girls and teaching them to honor their own goals and potential, and by engaging with the vast majority of non-terrorist residents of Central Asia, Mortenson has probably done far more to promote peace in that corner of the world than any military force could. He has not only helped people help themselves, he has shown the compassionate, generous side of America that the proponents of radical Islam ignore. Thousands of students have passed through those schools, which means that there are thousands fewer people who might be willing to die in the name of a warped terrorist ideology.

It's a great book, which opens a vivid window into a part of the world that most Westerners greatly misunderstand. It illustrates the wide variety of cultures and peoples that live in Central Asia, and the cultural history that has given rise to such a potential for conflict. The writing is very engaging, and there were a few points where I thought that the landscape descriptions were worthy of Tolkien - high praise indeed, I should think.

However, if I do have one problem with the book, it does fall with the writing. Aside from its melodramatic turns from time to time (when Mortenson gives a speech to a nearly empty room, you can practically hear the violins in the background), there's a bias problem that bothered me. From the very beginning, Mortenson's co-author, David Relin, admits that he supports Mortenson's agenda in Central Asia. That would be fine if he weren't presenting himself as a journalist, but since he is, I spent most of the book wondering how much of the drama was polished up to make for a more compelling story (which would, in turn, lead to more public support for Mortenson).

Indeed, Relin tells in his introduction how Mortenson gave him a list of enemies, saying, "Talk to them, too." But the only actual criticism of Mortenson came from some CAI colleagues who said, in essence, "He just works too darn hard!" Any other enemies of Mortenson's were either non-existent or caricatured, like the mullahs who brought their gangs of toughs to try and stop the building of schools. The opposition to his work was used as a set up to remind us how awesome he was. For example: several times, local religious leaders pronounced fatwas against Mortenson and his organization. Mortenson's supporters in Pakistan then turned to the highest Islamic court in Qom, Iran, for their judgment in the matter. In what was admittedly a very dramatic scene, the court's decision was revealed: Mortenson's work was the kind of work that Allah would have any Muslim do, and there was to be no opposition by any Shia against him.

And that was that. As far as we, the readers, know, those angry mullahs just said, "Oh. Okay then, where shall we lay the foundation?"

Other than the somewhat messianic tone of the book towards Mortenson, I found it very compelling and enjoyable. It's good to know that there are people like him out there, who are so single-minded in the pursuit of doing the right thing that they will overcome any obstacle in their path to see that it is done. It is also a refreshing view of an all-too-often misunderstood part of the world, a place which we really do need to understand if we ever want to bring the age of terror to a close.

So, I recommend this book. I may even put it up on Bookmooch to see that it gets around. But if you're feeling bleak about the future of the United States' relationship with the rest of the world, this will make you feel a little better. Go read.

"You have to attack the source of your enemy's strength. In America's case, that's not Osama or Saddam or anyone else. The enemy is ignorance. The only way to defeat it is to build relationships with these people, to draw them into the modern world with education and business. Otherwise, the fight will go on forever."
- Brigadier General Bashir Baz, Three Cups of Tea

Greg Mortenson at Wikipedia
Three Cups of Tea at Wikipedia
Central Asia Institute at Wikipedia
Three Cups of Tea homepage
Central Asia Institute homepage
Pennies for Peace

The Gion Festival at Wikipedia

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Review 26: Hardcore Zen

Hardcore Zen by Brad Warner

This book is very different from most other Zen books out there.

A lot of books on Zen and Buddhism in general tend to be... how shall I put it... flaky. They tell you that if you eat a certain way or chant certain mantras or take certain drugs, you will attain the state of Nirvana, in which all your suffering will end and life will be an eternity of bliss thereafter. It's the classic self-help contradiction: happiness is just so easy to find, but you won't find it unless you read My Book. And also buy the candles, incense, mandala cloths, chanting CDs, windchimes, power crystals.... Despite claiming that they're not in it for the money, a lot of those purporting to offer enlightenment to the masses have a whole lot of stuff to sell.

Warner, to put it simply, calls this "bullshit." He doesn't try to affect the "wise and learned sage" voice in his writing. I imagine him more as a jittery skinny guy, telling you about the time he saw the entire history of the universe unfold around him in a dream. His writing is energetic and colloquial, and he talks to the reader as an equal, if a slightly less informed equal than himself. He tells you right from the beginning that you have no reason to do what he's done, or even to believe anything he has to say. But he's going to say it anyway because, as far as he knows, it's the truth.

He has an unusual background for a Zen Master. If you're anything like me, when you hear those words you think of a little bald guy in the mountains, calling people "grasshopper" and staring at nothing. Warner is not that. He talks a lot about his experiences as a punk rocker back in the days when being a punk rocker actually meant something, and this is pretty important.

You see, one of the driving forces of Punk, at least when it first emerged, was the idea that doing what society approved of was not being "real." In an era of power ballads, disco and soft hippie pablum, Punk music went the other way - loud, fast and hard songs full of anger and blasphemy. While everyone else was growing out their hair and trying to make it look like John Travolta's, punk rockers were wearing mohawks or shaving it all off. The basic message of punk: whatever is acceptable to society is unacceptable to me.

While that spirit of individualism and rebellion only lasted a little while, it did, in that time, share something with Buddhism, and Zen Buddhism in particular: Question everything. Never take anything at face value or accept it just because someone tells you to. Ask questions, criticize, poke, prod and be a general pain in the ass until you're happy with the answers you've got. And even then, keep questioning your own conclusions.

Another thing that Warner brings up again and again is that, with Zen, there is no requirement that you actually do what people tell you. There's no such thing as a Zen evangelist or Zen missionaries going out to convert the heathens. Buddhism, at least the way Warner sees it, is a path for the individual, not the group. The only person who can find the way is you. There will always be teachers out there who can make suggestions, but what it really comes down to is the individual doing the hard work - meditating, thinking, and questioning every day.

I like this approach. One of the things that turns me off from your standard religions is that they generally frown on independent thought. You're not supposed to think about what Jesus' sacrifice on the Cross meant, you're just supposed to thank Him for it. You're not supposed to think about why God doesn't want you to eat pork, or why He wants you to abstain from alcohol, or why He thinks women should cover their heads, you're just supposed to do it. Religion, in my mind, stifles creativity and tries to absolve people of the responsibility of running their own lives.

And Buddhism is not really that much different, despite Warner's presentation of it here. It has its scriptures and its prohibitions, its rules and regulations which many people around the world follow without question. Just look at the "Free Tibet" people and you'll see how even Buddhism isn't free from the virus of the Argument From Authority. I'd bet that if the Dalai Lama announced tomorrow that eating cats was a sacred and venerable tradition for Tibetan Buddhists, Richard Gere would start eating kitty steaks within a week.

But the idea is sound. The idea is that there is no such thing as Authority. There is no human being, past, present or future, who is more qualified to tell you how to run your life than you are (even if you aren't all that good at it yourself). All it takes is dedicated thought and concentration to figure out how to live your life well, and the weird thing is that most people who do this tend to come to the same conclusion: the best way to live your life is to do the right thing, right now.

What is the right thing? Only you can figure that out.

Zen interests me, for many reasons, and a lot of them were addressed in this book. The idea that the past is the past and the future doesn't exist is one that I picked up years ago and has made life a lot less stressful. The focus on personal responsibility is another aspect that is quite attractive. I find that people in this modern age like to dodge their responsibilities to themselves and others, and I find that disturbing. We need to take responsibility for our own actions, and blaming the government or our parents or video games for our suffering really isn't going to make the world a better place.

The first step to having a better life is taking control of it. But don't just take my word for it, and don't take Warner's. Work it out for yourself.

"Question Authority. Question Society. Question Reality. Question Yourself. Question your conclusions, your judgments, your answers. Question this. If you question everything thoroughly enough, the truth will eventually hit you upside the head and you will know. But here’s a warning: It won’t be what you imagined. It won’t be even close. "
- Brad Warner, Hardcore Zen

Hardcore Zen on Wikipedia
Brad Warner on Wikipedia
Hardcore Zen at
Zen Buddhism at Wikipedia
Introduction to Zen from Kodaiji Temple

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Review 25: Three Men in a Boat

Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) by Jerome K. Jerome

This book puts me in mind of the time my friends and I decided it would be a great idea to go to my mother's house in the Poconos during spring break.

It was back in the late nineteen-hundreds, and we were a college cadre of Dungeons & Dragons players who had a great campaign going. "Spontaneous Combustion" we called ourselves, because of our habit of blowing things up at any opportunity. Not a weekend would go by that we didn't burn, destroy, incinerate or otherwise defile something in our imaginary world. But we were exhausted from the rigors of trying to balance our school life with our raping and pillaging. I say "raping" because it really belongs there with "pillaging," though to my knowledge there was no raping of anyone. Dismemberment, yes, and I believe my character managed to give a lot of people syphilis, but in a rather unconventional way.

The plan was simple: we'd all go down to the house in the mountains for a few days, have marathon D&D sessions, and generally enjoy each others' company in quiet isolation from the world. The house was an idyllic place - all trees and silence and snow, with the occasional deer or wild turkey. It would be a truly beautiful and serene place for us to rest our wearied bodies and stretch our wild imaginations.

So, much like Jerome K. Jerome and his companions, Harris, George and, of course, Montmorency, who decide in this book that the best tonic for their youthful ennui would be a boating trip up the Thames, we all headed to the mountains of Pennsylvania to soothe our troubled souls and to bond as friends and boon companions.

Also like Jerome, Harris and George (to say nothing of Montmorency), we had no idea what we were really getting ourselves into.

The three men (and the dog) of Jerome K. Jerome's story are like most travelers throughout time since the idea of traveling for leisure was invented: they have a Plan. The Plan, of course, is to have a good time with one's friends while avoiding anything resembling work. Unfortunately, the world will often have other plans. In the case of this book, those plans involved angry swans, annoying lovers, unusually busy inns, bad weather and general vehicular mishaps.

Now that I think on it, though, the trouble they had with their boat - and there was trouble - wasn't quite as bad as the trouble I had with my car on our way to the role-playing retreat. Thanks to a strategically placed pothole, I managed to blow out both passenger side tires on my car. Not all at once, though. The rear one went flat right away, causing the small caravan to stop on the side of a New Scotland road while I panicked and my friend Jon fixed the tire. I would have done it myself, of course, but this was the first Misfortune to befall my beloved car - whose name, for reasons too complicated to go into here, was Phoenix - so it fell to Jon to do it. The rest of our crew were milling about patiently, except for Jim, who was lighting road flares so that anyone who happened to be driving down the sunlit, arrow-straight, bone-dry stretch of road might not kill us all.

The second flat tire occurred in a small town, the name of which I have forgotten. Or blocked out. There had been a slow leak, and I was on my way out of the liquor store (we had to buy liquor, there was no question of that, though whose idea it was to buy the Jeroboam of red wine escapes me) and Jon says, "Don't get angry."

"Why would I get angry, Jon?" I replied, doing a passable imitation of HAL from 2001.

It turned out that the other passenger side tire had gone flat while we were shopping. This left us in a small town on the outskirts of Nowhere, at 8 PM on a Friday night in need of a tire. By some miracle, the AAA man we called knew someone who could sell us a tire so we could get on our way. The man, who turned out to bear a remarkable resemblance to Gene Wilder from Young Frankenstein, was happy to sell it to us, though he wouldn't actually put it on the car. Possibly because he wanted to save us money by not charging us for the labor, or possibly because my car - adorned with a variety of bumper-stickers and interesting rear-view amulets - looked like it belonged to an angry gay druid. Whatever his reasons, we got a new tire on the car and were grateful for his help.

In discussing any trip, of course, one must eventually come to the weather. For Jerome and his friends it was the rain that defied their best efforts to stay dry and forced them to find lodgings in towns where places to sleep were already scarce. For us, it was snow.

Snow is common in the mountains through early spring, but we were prepared for that. Mom had called the plow service and assured us that the driveway would be clear when we got there. When we arrived (having first worked out the Problem of the Mismarked Map), we found that the driveway had not, in fact, been plowed and the snow came up to mid-thigh. We parked on the street, slogged through the snow and went to open the door. When the key wouldn't turn on the second lock, I pretty much gave up and just wandered around the snow saying, "She only gave me one key," over and over again until someone managed to get the door open. After about twelve hours of cataclysmic travel, we were There. We had arrived! Our objective was obtained and our journey was done! We could finally unwind and relax.

One of the difficulties that we shared with Jerome and company was with food. They packed well enough, of course, with all kinds of comestibles, but like all people who are not used to preparing and procuring their own food, the comedy that resulted was plentiful. Beef without mustard, infinitely peelable potatoes, strange and unfathomable stews - any traveler who goes on a journey without having some kind of food misadventure has missed half the fun.

For us, it was steak. Get a group of men together and their appetites will turn to meat. Oh sure, there might be a few green, hippie, godless Commie men out there who lean towards tofu, but they're really thinking of meat, no matter what they say.

We had bought some steaks - the best our college-student budgets could handle. But how to cook them? For in every group of meat-loving men, everyone is a meat expert. It's a mark of True Masculinity, the ability to cook a steak, and the insinuation that one cannot cook a steak is tantamount to calling the man a queer sissy fairy-boy.

What resulted from this battle of culinary wills was a dinner that consisted, mainly, of shoe leather, with everyone holding grudges against everyone else for Not Doing It Right. This was about the same time I learned firsthand why one should never chug blackberry brandy.

The myriad of problems that people have when traveling are, unfortunately, universal. Poor planning, bad luck, nasty locals, bad weather, pigheadedness and the unfortunate tendency of the world not to live up to our expectations of it - all of these conspire to make travel an endurance trial. What surprised me the most about this book was how similar Jerome K. Jerome's troubles had been to my own.

As bad as things can be at the time, though, there comes a time, afterward, when you can look back and laugh. Safe at home, Jerome took his eventful, awful trip up the Thames and made it into an incredibly funny classic of English literature. The fact that the book is over a hundred years old doesn't take away at all from its comedy value because the humor comes from the universal nature of travelers and traveling. We all go on our journeys hoping for a relaxed, congenial time, but we tell stories about the mishaps, misadventures and difficulties. They are, paradoxically, the most fun part of the trip.

So I laughed along with Jerome and his friends, remembering all the while the infighting, bad food, bad moods, burnt countertops, spiked spaghetti sauce and everything else that made that one Spring Break trip so terribly, terribly memorable.

Although, all things being equal, I would have been just as happy if we'd had... y'know, a good time.

"They cursed us - not with a common cursory curse, but with long, carefully thought-out, comprehensive curses, that embraced the whole of our career and went away into the distant future, and included all our relations and covered everything connected with us - good, substantial curses."
- Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat

Three Men in a Boat at Wikipedia
Jerome K. Jerome at Wikipedia
Three Men in a Boat at
Three Men in a Boat at Wikisource