We have a family split when it comes to vacation activities. We have one action junkie daughter who needs constant things to do and places to go 24/7. We have another daughter who is content to lie on the beach or poolside and occasionally rouse herself to read a book (or more prevalently now, do Facebook, Twitter, or its ilk on the computer). My long-suffering wife is (now) somewhere in-between - she does get bored with sitting around and baking in the sun and feels the need to visit the sites both small and insignificant (the cheese factory, the beer-drinking pigs) and the important and interesting (the castle, the mountain peaks, the national parks). Then there is me -- content to sit in the shade (I burn like an SOB even with gobs of SPF 30) and read. The only constraint on my incredible appetite for this was the number of books I could convince myself to lug along. Then came the Amazon Kindle and no more constraint. In a mere 6 ounces (or less), I can possess tens of books -- and if Sprint is available, I have access to thousands more. Problem (though not always marital bliss) solved.
In between books, we managed to see most of the sites that Virgin Gorda, British Virgin Islands offered and they were, for the most part, delightful. This trip was booked and mostly paid for before the current market collapse, so we felt duty-bound not to lose even more money by canceling. Once again a lesson learned....book in advance so you can't back out -- a respite from the world is a good thing. Virgin Gorda is quiet, the beaches virtually deserted (and beautiful), and the distractions minimal. If you do not care to pay the exorbitant costs of flying there from somewhere else, the ferry from St. Thomas is about 90 minutes out (no stops) and about 2 hours plus going back (a stop in Tortola so you can pay your $5 per person exit fee and have your bags pass through a search -- although the more experienced travelers simply left their bags on the ferry). The Baths is a gorgeous national park with huge boulders that create caves sitting right on the beach and a don't miss attraction. The Copper Mine was almost worth the drive and has the advantage of taking very little time to traverse the grounds.
Food is expensive if you eat out -- we were a bit surprised at the cost, but there were a couple of interesting and good places; the onion rings at the Top of the Baths were outstanding, the pasta was quite good at The Rock Cafe, and mostly everything, including the New Orleans Rum Punch, the tuna and salmon sashimi, and all the other seafood and salads were very good at Chez Bamboo. Groceries were only to be had a one rather sorry dockside store -very expensive - and one look at the meat selection made restaurant-goers out of us.
The sun and stars are big attractions and were spectacular. Unfortunately for us, the surf was a bit rugged for snorkeling, but it is reputed to be terrific. All in - a very good time.
Time for books too -- here goes (in order of seriousness of literature):
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz -- This is a wonderfully written, funny and disturbing novel about life; life in the Dominican Republic; life for Dominican immigrants who settle in New Jersey; life being a nerd in a culture where nerds are even less highly regarded than mainstream America. It is also a devastating simple and effective expose and condemnation of the Trujillo dictatorship (and its only slightly less equally awful successors) in all of its brutality. Oscar Wao is a misplaced teenager and then young adult -- a sci-fi loving, video game playing, fantasy-writing fat to the point of ridicule guy in a macho culture and Junot Diaz does a masterful job showing us how losers lose and still (sort of) survive being teenagers. Oscar's family comes from Santo Domingo - having fled the Trujillo regime and believing themselves somewhat cursed (his mother's legacy). The backstory is at least as interesting, if not perhaps even more so, than the current events and Diaz weaves the two together exceptionally well. Characters abound as family members are described and the life of the dictator held tropical island is made apparent. My only complaint was my lack of Spanish -- it would have been helpful to catch some of the jokes.
The Prince of Frogtown by Rick Bragg -- Bragg has written two other novels about his family - All Over But The Shouting is a moving tribute to the character and toughness of his mother who managed to survive an alcoholic and abusive husband to raise 3 boys under the toughest conditions imaginable - extreme poverty, no skills, and no way out. It is also the story of Bragg's hardscrabble youth and his overwhelming attachment to the hardworking, no luck, no future people that inhabit the Southern mill towns like the one he grew up in. In Ava's Man, Bragg shows us and tells us where his mother got her grit, determination, and ability to love -- from his maternal grandmother Ava and his grandfather, Charlie. Charlie is Ava's Man and Bragg's tribute to this product of the Appalachian foothills along the Georgia-Alabama border is terrific. Hard working, hard drinking, hard fighting, hard loving -- Bragg describes a people and a place that most of us either never knew or didn't care to -- but should have and one having read his work, are glad that we now do.
The Prince of Frogtown returns to his father - the man that Bragg would like to but cannot forget. Charles Bragg was known to his middle son as a mostly absent drunken abusive and uncaring man -- but who also left memories when he as a small child he simply can not forget, nor (until this book) understand or explain. Rick Bragg asks his older brother Sam, "Can you remember one good thing Daddy ever did?". That answer, and a few others, are what make up this book about his father - the man and motivations that Rick Bragg never knew. Interwoven with the story of his father are wonderful little vignettes of Bragg's encounters with a boy who will become his stepson as Bragg falls in love with a woman who has a nine-year old son. Dealing (at age 46) with a young boy brings Bragg back to his own childhood and his relationship with his father and Bragg is simply terrific in bringing his own upbringing (good and bad) and his relationship with his father to his relationship with the boy.
To know the father he really never knew, Bragg goes back and talks to his father's friends and acquaintances and the result is touching, surprising, and a terrifically told story.
Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets by Nassim Nicholas Taleb -- This book by the author of The Black Swan has an interesting and perhaps even fascinating thesis - most of what you see and believe as success may really be nothing but luck. Reading this book today is a revelation -- first published in 2001, Taleb successfully predicts the market meltdown we are experiencing. However, that is neither the core nor the purpose of the book, nor does Taleb claim any prescience but it is the inescapable conclusion that Taleb leads you to in his work. He also does a terrific job of explaining why most of the statistics you see quoted about market performance are complete nonsense.
Now having said all that - and believing there are some very, very insightful and cool ideas in this book, Taleb is a load to read. He is clearly incredibly well educated and well-read, and smart as hell, and...well, to quote from his own bio, "Part literary essayist, part empiricist, part researcher, part no-nonsense businessman, he spent eighteen years as a mathematical trader, and was the Dean’s Professor in the Sciences of Uncertainty at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst" -- and boy, does he let you know it. He often says he was not well liked by his fellow traders and after reading him for a while, you can easily imagine why. He is, as we used to say, a bit over done.
However, you can also easily look beyond that as he describes why much of what we call success is random, how what we are told is performance is so often the result of surviorship bias, and why a lot of other financial secrets of success is only so much hot air. Put up with the pinky-raising flowery language, the classics quoting, and the hardly believable self-deprecation and read the really insightful stuff that Taleb has to offer.
Fear Itself by Walter Mosley -- I have reviewed Mosley before -- see Blonde Faith and I think he is a fabulous writer. Mystery, science fiction, short stories, social commentary ... Mosley is versatile, creative, innovative and he makes you look at an America that most of us don't see, haven't seen, and probably should see. In Fear Itself, Mosley continues the "Fearless Jones" series that features the headliner (Fearless) and Paris Minton. Paris is the normal guy -- trying to make a living, educate himself and get ahead. Fearless is the energy, the moxie, and the aggression - the Korean War vet that can not read well, but that you want by your side for his loyalty and his street smarts. Mosley is showing us Los Angeles in the 1950's and 60's -- let me rephrase - Mosley is showing us black Los Angeles in the 1950's and 60's as he does in the Easy Rawlins series. The twist for this story is that Mosley is showing us the stuggle for financial independence in the black community at this time. Paris Minton owns a used book store and dreams of owning more and bigger stores. Kit Mitchell leases land north of LA and grows watermelons and trucks them in to LA (and sells them as Texas Watermelons); Henry Orkan distributes beauty supplies; Milo Sweet is a disbarred lawyer and bail bondsman looking for ways to expand his scope and reach. Other people own bars, restaurants, and boarding houses (black people can not stay at LA hotels and motels). They all want to meet and get close to Winifred Fine, who owns the beauty supply company and the fruit market, three gas stations, two hardware stores, and Nathan's bakery -- she's the first black millionaire they have ever heard of. What Mosley is doing is showing the reader the reality of how hard it was and how hard people, black people had to work to make it -- but he is also showing us how absolutely just like the rest of (most of) us that is like.
As always, Mosley is both entertaining (a good story, more than credible mystery, great characters)and thought provoking.
Rough Weather by Robert B. Parker - I really adore Parker and I really adore the Spenser series. After 30 years and 36 novels (just on Spenser), Spenser, Hawk, Susan Silverman, Chollo, Bobby Horse, Teddy Sapp, Martin Quirk, and Frank Belson (among others) are old (and appreciated) friends. I still laugh at the corny conversation between Spenser and Hawk. I like the exchange between Susan and Spenser as they try to understand their relationship and the rules that Spenser lives by. I like the bad guys going down and sometimes even the bad guys who aren't so bad. Like I said, its like being with old friends.
Rough Weather stars Spenser, Hawk, Susan, and reintroduces Rugar (the Gray Man), a very bad guy who once almost succeeded in killing Spenser. Hired by a very rich woman (to do exactly what is not quite sure) to attend her daughters wedding, Spenser is witness to Rugar (and his team) kidnapping the bride and killing the groom. And off we go.
It is Spenser at his familiar best and although I must admit there is now a sameness to many of the books, I really do look forward to each and every one.
The Accidental Time Machine by Joe Halderman -- No vacation reading list would be complete without some total flights of fancy (i.e., Sci-Fi) and Joe Halderman is an author I have just recently discovered. I liked The Forever War and picked this up as well and enjoyed it thoroughly. While the theme has been done before, Halderman throws in enough humor, reality (what its like to be a graduate student and post-doc), science (he actually tries to explain string theory), and nifty ideas (at one point in the future all economic activity becomes barter based -- because all the basic needs are taken care of) to make the traditional time travel story work quite well.
Matt Fuller is slaving away as a post-doc in physics at MIT when he accidentally invents a time machine. Each time he pushes the button the machine jumps into the future -- and each time it jumps 12 times the distance into the future. When he loses his job, he begins to experiment and...well, off he goes. Haldeman does not just reinvent H.G. Wells, though he does a bit. See, once again, the future ain't what its all cracked up to be. So Matt goes to jail (and is somehow bailed out by himself), visits a future where Jesus has returned (and MIT is now the Massachusetts Institute of Theosophy); where Earth suffers an ecological disaster, where Australia is the only populated continent, where the Moon has been turned into an amusement park, and where humans have fled the planet to populate the galaxy. Haldeman deals well with the science, the time travel paradox (i.e., what if you went into the past and changed it), and along the way tells an highly entertaining story.
Savage Stories of Conan by Robert E. Howard -- Every single Conan short story ever written all in one volume....for less than a dollar on Amazon for Kindle. What can I say? Every man needs a way to be 13 all over again.....and for less than a dollar, who could resist?