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I’ve had a lot of time to read this summer. That usually doesn’t happen, but with countless lonely hours onboard the Chancellorsville and a month off in North Dakota I’ve had a lot of time to read. Mostly, I’ve been reading nonfiction. But one of the best books I’ve read this summer – and probably even this year – was A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain by Robert Olen Butler.

The book is a beautiful piece of fiction made up of a series of first-person stories, each told from the point of view of a Vietnamese-American. The book is risky because Butler is this middle-class white guy writing about what the Vietnamese people went through after the Vietnam War. But that is what makes the book so great. He captures the spirit of these people and makes the reader believe in their stories. I think it has a lot to do with the first-person narration, but also the risk Butler took in telling these tales.

After reading the book, I went on a Robert Olen Butler hunt. I was in Madison at the time and I looked for his other books in half a dozen bookstores throughout the city. I finally found several of his books in the used books section of a Madison Barnes and Noble. I found another collection – Tabliod Dreams – and read the entire thing while in Mankato for a couple days last week. The book wasn’t as good as Good Scent but it was still a good read.

So, here’s my question to you, dear reader: What’s the best book you’ve read this summer (or year)?

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Last Sunday, I embarked on a weeklong road trip across North Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. I drove straight through N.D. and Minnesota and arrived in Madison, Wis. around midnight, where Bryan and Emily welcomed me with a bottle of Spotted Cow.

Here’s some pics from the trip:

This is the Big Looming Jesus statue near Bryan and Emily’s apartment complex. The statue inspired a “Big Scary Jesus” song, complete with hand-claps and car-seat dancing.

The cheese head makes it official folks: he’s a Wisconsinite!

After feeding the ducks and bastard-cheese-stealing pigieons near campus, we posed for a pic.

Bryan and Emily know me well. They know I love bars named after mythical creatures, so they took me to the Madison suburb Mt. Horeb, the troll capital of the world. Here I’m outside The Grumpy Troll. That damn open flag kind of screwed up the pic, but we didn’t let that stop visiting the brewery and restaurant.

Ummmm, beer. We tried all of the bar’s brews. My favorite was the Erik the Red (on the far left here). I bought a growler of the Red, which we downed over pizza the following evening.

After The Grumpy Troll, we wandered down Mt. Horeb’s Main Street. The shops (including an independant book store and a mustard museum) were closed, but there were trolls everywhere.

This troll was my favorite. He was holding a camera and an ice cream cone. I stole a lick.

I liked this guy’s squeeze-box.

Doesn’t this look like a senior picture? I think I’ll print this one and give it to my mother.

I even found a few gnomes in Mt. Horeb, including this buddy, who was being put to work as a gardener.

Overall, I had a great time in Wisconsin. I’m definately returning next summer and I’m headed back to Mt. Horeb. There are more trolls to see.

Picture 1: Contact solution, shampoo, conditioner, face wash, soap, extra toothbrush, deodorant, hand sanitizer, mini-notebooks, North Dakota postcards, North Dakota pencils, and chocolate-covered sunflower seeds.

Picture 2: Magazines, eight boxes of Junior Mints, and the following books: What Was Asked of Us: Oral Histories, Not That You Asked, Blue Highways, Walden, Heaven’s Coast, a China travel Guide, and Lost on Planet China.

Picture 3: Umbrella, Post-it notes, gum, phone cards, a lock, battery charger, gnome, converter, shaving kit, coffee-bean grinder, French press, measuring cups, traveling coffee mug, and external hard drive.

I’m a little nervous about fitting it all into two suitcases and one carry-on (along with clothes and shoes), so if you have any tips let me know.

What did everyone think of the Olympics?

I’m not much of a sports fan, but I love watching the Olympics. I think it has something to do with my family always settling around the television to watch when I was a kid. I remember watching the Olympics as a child, but not since. I think this is the first Olympics I’ve actually sat down and watched the majority of the games. It probably has something to do with the fact that I haven’t been working this month.

Finally, here’s a video Emily recorded when I was in Madison. As you may recall, I have problems with women’s gymnastics. This is what the event sounds like to me:

Here are some pics from the World’s Largest Seated Buddha on Lantau Island, Hong Kong. Click on the photo for a larger view:

Remind me to tell you a story about Clisbee. While I was in Kansas, I met a couple who know Clisbee and they told me stories.

I’m traveling this week. I’m currently in Madison, Wis., visiting Bryan and Emily. We walked around State Street and the U of W yesterday. Last night, we went to Mount Horeb, the troll capital of the world. I took a lot of pictures so I’ll post those when I get the chance.

On Wednesday I’ll be driving to Mankato and then on to Minneapolis before making my way home. Hopefully I’ll see everyone sometime during the trip.

My friend Teri is driving to Missouri for journalism grad school (Good luck Teri!). She posted on her MySpace blog, and she says that the roads in Iowa are pink. Luke, others – is this true? Are the gay Iowans coating the roads? I’m curious.

I hate the women’s gymnastics at the Olympics.

Now, obviously, I love watching the men tackle those rings and fly around that pummel horse. I could watch that all day. So, it isn’t the sport. What bugs me are the annoying teenage girls yipping on the sidelines. All I can hear from the sidelines are these screeching, high-pitched, yips. Come on Shawn! Come on Shawn! And that’s just the Americans.

Anyone else notice this? It grates on my every nerve.