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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 FromĀ 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)?

Then We Came to the End

I finished Joshua Ferris’ Then We Came To the End today. I picked up the book at the airport on my way back from my West Virginia interview back in March. I only now found the time to finish it (I read 200 pages while at the Phoenix airport Friday).

I found the book really easy to read. Ferris uses first person plural – we – throughout the book to demonstrate the herd-like mentality of office drones. It really works to give a greater meaning to the story and what these characters felt. I was also interested because to a lesser degree I use the first person plural in my memoir. It’s a technique very rarely used and I think Ferris really makes his story stand out by using it.

Ferris does some interesting things with the narrative. There’s a section in the middle of the book that switches from first person plural into third person for no apparent reason. The reader doesn’t figure out why Ferris does this until the end, and I think that’s what makes this book work – the writer takes some chances with his story and the way he tells his story, ultimately giving the narrative greater meaning.

Check it out if you get the chance.

***

I was talking to my brother Bo yesterday. I mentioned my couple days of traveling coming up. I drove from Mankato to Fargo yesterday. Now, I’m waiting to catch the train to Minneapolis, where I’ll catch a taxi to the airport, and then a plane to Hawaii.

“Wow,” Bo said. “Planes, trains, and automobiles, huh?”

***

On a final note, I’m not sure how much I’ll be able to post once I’m on the ship. Some of the information is classified so I’ll need permission to post on a blog. Therefore, if you don’t hear from me for a while, don’t fret. I’ll post when I can. If nothing else I’ll do a big photo dump at the end of the trip.

I have a ton of books I haven’t read. I think all writers do. We buy books, and then for some reason or another (lost interest, not enough time, forgot about) we don’t read these books and they remain on our bookshelf – spine in perfect condition, pages never touched. While packing up my books, I set aside the ones I haven’t read. I figure that I’ll have some time to read while in China, so I’ll take five or six with me.

Here’s the problem: which ones do I take with? I’m currently reading Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris, and while on the USS Chancellorsville, I’ll read River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze by Peter Hassler (which Dick recommended because it’s a recent book about teaching in China). But in order to narrow down my list to a handful of books, I’m enlisting your help. Below is a list of books I own and have not read (or have not completed).

Which should I take with to China and why? Leave comments with your suggestions.

  • Later, At the Bar by Rebecca Barry
  • Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs by Chuck Klosterman
  • The Untouched Minutes by Donald Morrill
  • Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer
  • Walden : And Other Writings by Henry David Thoreau (I’ve read part of this put not all)
  • Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer
  • Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
  • Possible Side Effects by Augusten Burroughs
  • A Passage to India by E.M. Forster
  • Fishboy by Mark Richard
  • We’re in Trouble by Christopher Coake
  • The Evil B.B. Chow by Steve Almond (Started the first couple stories)
  • Heaven’s Coast by Mark Doty
  • Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon
  • Not that You Asked by Steve Almond
  • Dispatches by Michael Herr
  • Thieves of Baghdad by Matthew Bogdanos
  • My Misspent Youth by Meghan Daum
  • The KGB Bar Nonfiction Reader
  • A Rumor of War by Philip Caputo
  • A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby
  • The Horizontal World: Growing Up Wild in the middle of Nowhere by Debra Marquart
  • Black Swan Green by David Mitchell
  • Just Another Soldier by Jason Christopher Hartley
  • What Was Asked of Us by Trish Wood
  • Generation Kill by Evan Wright
  • Babylon By Bus by Ray Lemoine and Jeff Neumann
  • My War: Killing Time in Iraq by Colby Buzzell
  • Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife by Mary Roach
  • Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach
  • Meeting Faith: An Inward Odyssey by Faith Adiele