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In America: Travels with John Steinbeck
In America: Travels with John Steinbeck
by Geert Mak
Edition: Paperback
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4.0 out of 5 stars Travels in a Fat Country, June 1, 2015
In 1960 John Steinbeck set out from his home in New York in a pickup truck to see America. Fifty years later Geert Mak, a Dutch journalist, set out in a rented SUV from New York to follow Steinbeck's trail and see what has changed and what hasn't. Along the way, Mak sprinkles in history lessons and social commentary along with a look at Steinbeck's life and work.

As interested as I am in literary history, politics then and now, and road trips in general, I was especially curious to find out what impressions Mak had of America in 2010. While Mak says nice things about many people that he knows in America (including friends from his university days), he is more often critical of American politics, government, and society. And Americans are very fat, he notes many times.

While reading In America, I had to keep reminding myself that Geert Mak was not writing it for me. Mak wrote his book in Dutch for a Dutch audience. As a widely translated author he would also have expected (or hoped) the book would be read by many other Europeans as well. But the book is not intended for Americans, at least not as its main or even secondary audience. So his criticism was not intended to sting.

Another reason I can't take issue with Mak's criticisms is that I agree with most of them. His discussion of the New Orleans Katrina tragedy is brutally accurate. His takes on drones, Guantanamo, "Mission Accomplished" will not get an argument from me. And if some of the history is old hat to an American (the Nixon/Kennedy debate), it might be news to others.

On the other hand, Mak seems a bit gullible for a journalist, or maybe he just pretends to believe when the story is too good to pass up. For instance, he mentions the sad state of local services in many municipalities and as evidence mentions that Los Angeles firefighters can be seen collecting donations in their boots to keep the their department solvent. I think most Americans have seen their local firefighters collecting coins in their boots for many worthy causes, but never assumed it was to keep the firehouse open. You have to wonder, did Mak assume that's why they were collecting money or did someone mischievously tell him that?

Another example is his recounting of a story David Halberstam relates in his book 'The Powers That Be' about Sam Rayburn (D-TX), Speaker of the House, who decided to spend a few hours between campaign appearances popping over the border to Ciudad Juarez. On his return, with his usual entourage of aides, the border guard challenged him and demanded to see his passport. Now any American knows that you didn't need a passport to go to Mexico back then, and Halberstam's story doesn't say any such thing. But Mak's story makes a big deal of the lack of passport, presumably for his European audience.

Aside from this sort of relatively unimportant (but journalistically sloppy) misstep, there's the matter of Mak's wife. She accompanied him on the grand tour of America, yet stays demurely in the background of the book. We are early on told that she is with Mak in the SUV, although we are never introduced to her by name, even as Mak tells us the GPS unit in the rental is named Sandy. She (Mrs. Mak) doesn't speak her first words until well past the halfway point in the book. But Steinbeck apparently did something similar, traveling with his wife Elaine for much of the route, then leaving her out of the book entirely, mentioning only the dog of the title, Charley.

Despite my quibbles, I enjoyed the chatty road trip format and plan to read more of Geert Mak soon.

Immigration and American Popular Culture: An Introduction (Nation of Nations)
Immigration and American Popular Culture: An Introduction (Nation of Nations)
by Rachel Rubin
Edition: Paperback
Price: $27.00
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5.0 out of 5 stars O.K. By Me in America, May 31, 2015
One of the most important points Rachel Rubin and Jeffrey Melnick make in their book Immigration and American Popular Culture is that migration patterns aren't random. People don't just start spilling out from their countries for no reason, heading to various destinations with no purpose.

Rubin and Melnick use a lot of movies and plays (their chapter on West Side Story and The Young Savages is excellent) to show how American pop culture changed the immigrants, how the immigrants changed the pop culture, and how the pop culture reflected the immigrants' lives back to them and to the society at large.

In some ways culture told truths about new immigrants, but in other ways culture (sometimes with the connivance of the immigrants themselves) told lies. One of the creators of West Side Story said he'd never been poor and had never met a Puerto Rican. But a lot of the producers of the show were gay. Maybe they were talking about more than one kind of outsider. (At risk of sounding like one of Jerry Seinfeld's jokes, there's nothing wrong with someone from one outsider group recognizing the hardships and pain felt by another.)

Another point Rubin and Melnick make is how immigrant groups that were "working toward whiteness" engaged in a "masquerade" that was similar to the blackface minstrelsy that went back to post-Civil War Reconstruction.

Sometimes the "blacking up" was relatively subtle, like the Jewish Edward G. Robinson playing the Italian Rico in Little Caesar. Sometimes it wasn't so subtle, like Al Jolson on his knees in blackface singing "Mammy."

Some cultural critics say immigrants used "blackface" (either literal paint or just trying to adopt black "cool") as a way of identifying WITH blacks, whereas some immigrant performers wanted to mock blacks and show a distinction between themselves and blacks.

Another interesting book on this subject is Black Like You by John Strausbaugh. Strausbaugh compares the generation of immigrant teenagers that made the song "Jump Jim Crow" a hit in the late nineteenth century in New York to the first generation of rock and rollers.

Well, Elvis just took black music and made it okay for white kids to dance to.

I can't help think that whites are always going to give the "appropriators" of black culture more credit for respecting that culture than blacks can, or think they should. Bing Crosby supposedly supported black artists more than anyone with his influence (read the book White Christmas: The Story of a Song by Jody Rosen), but watching him and Marjorie Reynolds in blackface in Irving Berlin's Holiday Inn makes you cringe.

Another Irving Berlin song goes: "Let me sing of Dixie's charms/Of cotton fields and Mammy's arms/And if my song can make you homesick/I'm happy."

The trouble is, that home never existed.

Nightmares in Red, White and Blue: The Evolution of the American Horror Film
Nightmares in Red, White and Blue: The Evolution of the American Horror Film
by Joseph Maddrey
Edition: Paperback
Price: $32.44
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5.0 out of 5 stars "I like the dark. . . . It's friendly.", May 31, 2015
Nightmares in Red, White and Blue is not just a history of themes in American horror movies and how those themes relate to the country's idea of itself (in other words, all the subtext-hunting B-movie lovers love). It's the best book on American horror movies and their reasons for existing I've ever read. (One of my dreams is to receive in the mail a copy of every book on movies McFarland & Company publishes. Fortunately I live near a university library that orders most of them.)

Joseph Maddrey proves that 200 pages is long enough to do justice to almost any subject if you're organized and know what you want to say.
Part I takes a historical view of the eras of American horror movies - - Universal monsters shuffling through the ruins the Great War; invaders from the depths of communist space; rebellious Roger Corman cheapies; sharks, slashers, and shinings; postmodern monstrosities impersonating European movie stars (Bela Lugosi's not dead, he's Catherine Deneuve).

My favorite chapter title is "What the Fifty Foot Woman Did to the Incredible Shrinking Man." In that chapter the book shows on consecutive pages three iconic images of woman-as-victim from famous seventies horror films.

Part II is a detailed examination of auteurs, including Tod Browning, Roger Corman, George Romero, John Carpenter, Larry Cohen, David Lynch, and Wes Craven.

Maddrey deserves an award for accomplishing something few critics do - - he quickly summarizes stories and what those stories are saying about American society without spoiling all the plot surprises. But you still know what the films are about, both on the surface and underneath.
I suspect we're on the verge of a new American nightmare to answer the American dream. I hope we can wake up from this one, too.

Red Moon Rising: Sputnik and the Hidden Rivalries that Ignited the Space Age
Red Moon Rising: Sputnik and the Hidden Rivalries that Ignited the Space Age
by Matthew Brzezinski
Edition: Hardcover
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5.0 out of 5 stars " . . . it's a Commie sky and Uncle Sam's asleep.", May 30, 2015
Those song lyrics were written by the governor of Michigan, one of many Americans who thought President Eisenhower was spending too much time golfing and not enough worrying about the Soviets and their Sputnik beeping above the earth.

Red Moon Rising is a detailed technological history, but it's even more interesting as a social and political history.

It was liberal Democrats like JFK and Lyndon ("I'll be damned if I sleep under a Red Moon") Johnson who used a nonexistent "Missile Gap" as a campaign issue against the Republican Eisenhower. That scared the American public, and the U.S. started on a road which led to the shooting down of a U-2 spyplane over the USSR, the U.S. stationing of Jupiter missiles in Turkey, the Bay of Pigs, and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

It's also interesting how Walt Disney (on his new TV show) created an image of Werner von Braun as a dispassionate scientist, bringing Tomorrowland's imagined future to reality. No mention of the slave labor von Braun used to build V-2 rockets for Hitler.

Or, as Basil Fawlty said in another context, "Don't mention the war."

But as Matthew Brzeszinski shows in Red Moon Rising, you have to mention it. It was the personalities who came out of World War II - - people like Eisenhower, Stalin, Sergei Korolev, Werner von Braun, Nikita Khrushchev, Lavrenty Beria, and Allen Dulles - - who gave us the world of ICBMs, satellites, and Apollo Moon launches.

But not against our will. Beep. Beep.

Bastard Tongues: A Trail-Blazing Linguist Finds Clues to Our Common Humanity in the World's Lowliest Languages
Bastard Tongues: A Trail-Blazing Linguist Finds Clues to Our Common Humanity in the World's Lowliest Languages
by Derek Bickerton
Edition: Hardcover
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5.0 out of 5 stars "To really get to the heart of something, you can't have too little training.", May 25, 2015
This is the most interesting intellectual biography I've read. Bickerton's motto above helped him to wander into linguistics when he was teaching English literature in Africa, and then become one of the first scientists to discover how creole languages work.

Bickerton investigates the creole languages invented by the descendents of West Africans enslaved by European powers - - the English, French, Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch. He doesn't have the "Sitzfleisch" for library research, so he spends time in bars with the "unrighteous working class" in Columbia, Brazil, Barbados, Hawaii, Mauritius, and a dozen other places.

Bastard Tongues is a linguistic detective story. It takes Bickerton almost twenty years to find the answer to his mystery - - how creoles develop into full-fledged languages (just as complex as French or English) from the simpler contact languages (pidgins) that slaves used to communicate with their European overseers.

One of the most interesting of Bickerton's discoveries is how creoles exist on a continuum from "deeper" (almost incomprehensible to someone not a native speaker) to a level closer to the European language.

Bickerton goes into detail about how "the infernal machine" of a slave economy worked and shows how it was the nature of the slave economies in the "New World" that determined the evolution of their languages. Bickerton did as much for the field of history as linguistics. His analysis of the "expansion" and "establishment" phases of the American slave economies, and his investigation of the "maroons" - - escaped slaves, from the Spanish "cimarron," ("wild" or "runaway") is as interesting as the creole grammar.

His explanation of the TMA systems (tense, modality, aspect) in creoles will satisfy anybody who wants to get deep into interesting grammars without the academic jargon in some linguistics books. ("The difference between people and linguists is that people are interested in words and linguists are interested in grammar.")

Even if you're not overly interested in linguistics, but are interested in Hawaiian history, this book is fascinating. Sarah Roberts, one of Bickerton's students at the University of Hawaii, thought to look at court records rather than more literary sources for Hawaiian creole (or "Pidgin" with a capital P as it's called).

When Bickerton started in linguistics, there were three main theories about the origin of creoles: monogenesis (there was one ur-creole that influenced all the others), the superstrate theory (the creole mostly comes from the dominant language, say French or Portuguese), and the substrate theory (the creole mostly comes from the native language of the creole speakers (for instance, an indigenous West African language).

I never thought I'd say this in a review of a linguistics book, but SPOILER AHEAD.

Derek Bickerton showed that creole languages follow the same bioprogram that all human beings use to invent language, and that the reason creoles in the Pacific and South America resemble each other in basic grammar is because their users have the same mental equipment.

It looks like Bickerton's real intellectual leap wasn't so much in assuming creole-speaker-creators would use the same process as other kinds of language users, it was in NOTICING IN THE FIRST PLACE that the grammars of unrelated creoles were very much alike in very basic ways.
Bickerton's comparison of Saramaccan (a creole spoken in Surinam, with primarily English vocabulary) and Fa d'Ambu (the language of an island off West Central Africa with primarily Portuguese vocabulary) proves it.

Obviously, this owes something to Noam Chomsky's Universal Grammar (or Steven Pinker's "language instinct"), but Bickerton doesn't get involved in nature vs. nurture or biology vs. culture arguments. One thing I like about books by British and Australian linguists is that they don't feel the need to affirm or refute Chomsky's ideas. They take what works and leave what doesn't.

Bickerton also writes about Nicaraguan Sign Language, since deaf children create the same kind of full-bodied language that speaking children do, only using the mode of gesture instead of speech. Signed languages are just as complex as spoken ones. (Anyone who's read this far in this review will enjoy Talking Hands: What Sign Language Reveals About the Mind by Margalit Fox.)

More controversially, Bickerton proposes what linguists historically have called "The Forbidden Experiment," and which the National Science Foundation once approved for him, then cancelled. There are stories of rulers and "scientists" who supposedly isolated children without a language to see what would happen. (Fox's book Talking Hands goes into this subject as well, since that's the situation for deaf children who find themselves in a community of other deaf children, in which case they will create a basic pidgin in sign. When deaf children find themselves with others who have a basic sign language, they grammaticalize the pidgin and create a creole, a fully-formed signed language.)

I'm not as sure as Bickerton that the experiment he's proposing is a good idea, but like a lot in this book, it makes you think.

Talking Hands: What Sign Language Reveals About the Mind
Talking Hands: What Sign Language Reveals About the Mind
by Margalit Fox
Edition: Paperback
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5.0 out of 5 stars The Forbidden Experiment, May 24, 2015
Talking Hands is one of the most informative and compelling books on linguistics I've ever read. Margalit Fox is as entertaining a technical writer as David Crystal, Kate Burridge, and K. David Harrison.

In linguistics the "Forbidden Experiment" refers to stories of a king or sage isolating an infant to see what language it speaks "naturally."

Whether the Pharaoh Psammetichus did this or not, it happens every time deaf children find themselves together. Using the same "language instinct" or "bioprogram" that hearing children use to learn (or invent) spoken language for themselves, deaf children name things and create grammar and syntax.

If they're not exposed to an already existing signed language, they will create a pidgin for themselves, just like the spoken pidgins that exist all over the world. The next generations of signers will begin grammaticalizing the pidgin, turning it into a creole. Eventually the signed language will be as fully expressive as any spoken language. And Margalit Fox shows that deaf children have the same window for language acquisition that speaking children have - - up to the ages of between six and ten.

In alternating chapters, Fox tells the story of American Sign Language and the story of a Bedouin village in Israel, Al-Sayyid. Fox went there with four linguists who'd been studying the sign language that grew up spontaneously among both hearing and deaf people. Two of the linguists were Israeli and two American. One American, Carol Padden, is deaf.

Al-Sayyid was founded seven generations before, when the patriarch moved there and married a local woman. He carried a recessive gene for deafness, which is one of the requisites for the development of a "signing village" like Al-Sayyid. Recessive traits can skip generations, which means inherited deafness is unpredictable. Only two of the patriarch's five sons carried the gene, and all of the deaf people in the village are descended from those two men.

With a higher than normal rate of deafness, but without deafness being limited to certain families, the deaf aren't stigmatized. That means hearing people grow up signing to family members who can't hear.

It wasn't until the sixties or seventies that a professor at Gallaudet University, William Stokoe, demonstrated that sign was as functional a language as any spoken one, using handshape, location, and movement to transmit meaning.

For instance, in English the request "May I ask you a question?" requires six words. In ASL it takes one sign and a facial expression (raised eyebrows) used grammatically.

For a long time, "oralist" educators, acting in what they thought was deaf people's own good, supressed sign language in schools like Gallaudet in favor of an unnatural language called Manually Coded English. A generation of signers referred to their native language as "bathroom sign" because that's one of the few places they could use it.

Fox also talks about the Nicaraguan Sign Language that developed in the seventies after the Sandinista government nationalized a private school for the deaf. An influx of deaf children creolized the sign language they found students using (which was sort of a pidgin) and eventually turned it into a fully expressive native sign language. Another example of the "Forbidden Experiment."

One of the linguists Fox went to Al-Sayyid with points out that Al-Sayyid is different from Nicaragua because it is "socially normal." In Nicaragua "[t]here was no organic community." (Did any language since the first irretrievable one in Africa ever evolve without influence from somewhere else? Is it possible to know?)

There are dozens of lessons to learn from the stories the people of Al-Sayyid tell.

The most important lesson may be that 96 percent of the people use a language they don't really have to learn so that the four percent who can't hear can be fully part of their society.

Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's History-Making Race Around the World
Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's History-Making Race Around the World
by Matthew Goodman
Edition: Hardcover
123 used & new from $0.78

5.0 out of 5 stars The Rough Guide to Victorioan Travel, May 23, 2015
"...start off with a big thrill. Have your hero fall into a deep pit filled with rattlesnakes, and go on to describe his terrors...Keep on getting him, or her, into more such holes, one in each chapter, until they get married..."

This was the advice that journalist Nellie Bly received from a colleague when she decided to try her hand at writing serial novels for a weekly magazine. It's just possible that author Matthew Goodman also kept that advice in mind while he was writing Eighty Days.

The main story is the race between two journalists to travel around the world in 1889. It's an exciting set-up and there are plenty of close calls and exciting adventures. Goodman also uses the race as a backdrop to describe the world of 1889.

Jules Verne's novel, Around the World in Eighty Days, had been published in 1872 and seventeen years later, people were still speculating how long it would really take to go around the world by ship and land. In November, 1889, two women set out, hours apart, in opposite directions, to see just how long it would take to circumnavigate the globe.

Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland were both in their twenties, transplants to New York, writing for newspapers. Bly had proposed the idea of going around the world a year before to her reluctant editor. When he finally decided to give Bly the go-ahead, it was with only three days warning. Bisland, on the other hand, who as her paper's literary columnist, had never conceived of such a crazy stunt, was speechless when she was told one morning that she should be on the westbound train that evening for a round the world trip. Although less enthusiastic than Bly, Bisland understood her marching orders and was on the train.

As Goodman follows the two women on their journeys, he describes steamship travel in first class and in steerage, rail travel and the building of the transcontinental railroad, immigration to America, and tells of the increasing number of women reporters. Paradoxically, Bly and Bisland didn't send many actual reports back to New York and their stories were told by other reporters en route and only after the journey by the travelers themselves.

Both travelers noted that their journeys were overwhelmingly British - the British Empire was in full force and most of the steamships were British and they stopped in ports controlled by the British. British currency was accepted everywhere, American currency was not. English was spoken everywhere, even in countries where the British did not exert power. Most of the first class passengers were British, though not the passengers in steerage.

As interesting as the race itself was the aftermath. Goodman tells of two women whose careers and lives changed quite dramatically, and surprisingly, as a result of their travels. Eighty Days is a slice of history that's thoroughly researched and thoroughly enjoyable.

Also recommended: Eight Women, Two Model Ts, and the American West (Women in the West)

Bold Spirit: Helga Estby's Forgotten Walk Across Victorian America

The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey
The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey
Offered by Audible, Inc. (US)
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5.0 out of 5 stars They Ran Out of Everything Except Luck, May 19, 2015
Candice Millard tells the story of Theodore Roosevelt's journey along the Amazon after he lost his third party bid to become president for a third term. This is a terrific narrative, about the group of men that made the trip, the relationship between TR and his second oldest son Kermit, and the dangers they all encountered. It's an exciting story, and while I knew that TR had been injured on the expedition and it had been touch and go whether he'd make it back to civilization alive, I didn't realize that the entire group had serious doubts as to whether any of them would make it out of the jungle.

This had to be the worst planned trip ever. They didn't bring enough food and supplies, and much of what they did bring was useless for the journey (wine, jam). Apparently they had expected to gather and hunt food along the way, but they were only able to provide a small amount of food for themselves this way as it turned out. They got lost, their equipment was inadequate, they had trouble with the native communities along the way. Several of the men, including TR and Kermit and Cherry, the naturalist, kept detailed diaries, so we have a pretty good record of what happened over the course of the trip -- excitement, tragedy, even murder.

Narrator Paul Michael is excellent. For the most part he stays out of the way of the story, giving the characters subtle accents or nuances to make it easy to tell who's talking. I very much enjoyed this audible book and will read whatever Candice Millard writes next.

When Languages Die: The Extinction of the World's Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge (Oxford Studies in Sociolinguistics)
When Languages Die: The Extinction of the World's Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge (Oxford Studies in Sociolinguistics)
by K. David Harrison
Edition: Hardcover
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5.0 out of 5 stars Sticky Language, May 19, 2015
Several people have written about so-called "language death" (David Crystal and Mark Abley have written books on the subject). K. David Harrison's book When Languages Die shows what it really means when a language "dies."

First of all, Harrison makes it clear the death metaphor isn't perfect. Languages aren't people; they can't die. Instead "language shift - - the process by which younger people in a community choose not to speak the ancestral language and opt for the dominant national language" takes place. Harrison has spent years with, among others, the Tofa and Tuvan people in Siberia (whose Turkic languages have been replaced by Russian) and the nomadic Monchak people in Mongolia, who "have been linguistically fully assimilated to Mongolian."

Harrison uses examples from over a hundred different indigenous languages to show the different ways people have thought about the world.

Harrison points out that it's not so much globalization as urbanization that's responsible for language disappearance: "In crowded urban spaces, small languages usually lose the conditions they need for survival."

Harrison shows why we need to at least document the thousands of languages that will disappear this century. We don't even know what knowledge we'll lose. Language is "sticky" when written down, but most languages have never had writing systems. And if we lose the knowledge of how people have thought, we won't know how people can think.

The saddest story in the book belongs to Vasya Gabov, the youngest speaker of Os ("O" with an umlaut). The Os people fish and hunt in central Siberia. In school Gabov was forbidden to speak his own language and forced to speak Russian. He reacted by inventing an alphabet for Os based on Cyrillic. (Harrison goes into detail about how Gabov made the Russian alphabet work for Os.) Then, once Gabov had a way of recording his native language, he started keeping a journal in Os. But years later, when someone mocked him for writing in Os, the feelings of shame from school came back and he "threw his journal - - the first and only book ever written in his native Os tongue - - out into the forest to rot."

Harrison's telling of Vasya Gabov's story illustrates something that's clear throughout the book - - Harrison may be interested as a scientist in these languages for their own sake, but he cares for the "last speakers" he's lived with as human beings.

Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot
Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot
by Mark Vanhoenacker
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $17.30
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Pilot's View Through Rose-Colored Glasses, May 18, 2015
Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
Skyfaring is a bit of a throwback, a book that rhapsodizes about the romance of flying, of travel, in the way that you don't see much anymore. Mark Vanhoenacker is a first officer who flies Boeing 747s for British Airways, and although he's been flying professionally for about a decade, he's still almost giddy with enthusiasm for flying. Well, who can blame him? I worked at airports for fifteen years and never got tired of walking through the terminals, watching people coming and going, watching the planes arriving and departing. Being a pilot going to exotic places would be a total rush.

The two books that Skyfaring reminds me of are William Langewiesche's Inside the Sky: A Meditation on Flight and Beyond the Blue Horizon: On the Track of Imperial Airways by Alexander Frater. Langewiesche is pretty hard-nosed about aviation in general, but his essay on the physics of flight is lovely. And Frater's attempt to re-create the 1930s London-Sydney route that took weeks and made dozens of stops captures both the romance and the absurdity of air travel then and in the 1980s, when he made the journey.

Of course, nothing captures the absurdity of air travel today, and that's one thing that Vanhoenacker leaves out entirely. There's nothing here about airport security or suicidal pilots or unruly passengers. You won't even find mild turbulence in these pages. It's all brilliant sunrises and the camaraderie of the flight crews and the longing of the traveler -- for home when he's away and for distant lands when he's at home. I have to admit, I'm a pushover for this kind of thing and I loved it while I was reading it, but it really seems as if it's of a different time.

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