Monthly Archives: August 2011

Book Review: Lost on Planet China – J. Maarten Troost

I’ve developed an interest in China over the last few years, even to the point of trying to learn Mandarin with Rosetta Stone. When I saw Lost on Planet China on the shelf I gravitated toward it because of that, and then was doubly drawn to it when I recognized the author. J. Maarten Troost is the author of Getting Stoned with Savages and The Sex Lives of Cannibals. Neither of those books is as salacious as their titles suggest, and their subtitles really describe them more: A Trip Through The Islands of Fiji and Vanuatu and Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific. They’re very funny books, but they really do capture the spirit of life as a fish-out-of-water expat in the island nations on which they’re set.

Lost on Planet China is different because the author is not living in China, as he lived on the islands of his previous books. This book is really a travelogue, but still very much a fish-out-of-water story, and the book starts off with the author affirming that he knows absolutely nothing about China. While humor is present as in the other books, there’s a lot more history and politics, probably because China itself has a lot more history and politics. This makes it a different read than the others.

The subtitle of this book is “One Man’s Attempt To Understand The World’s Most Mystifying Nation” and I think the really focus is on that word “attempt.” The closest Troost comes to understanding China is captured in this quote toward the end of the book: Planet China is as varied and diverse as Planet Earth.

Throughout the book, Troost dwells on negative aspects of modern China – pollution, prostitution, overcrowding, etc., but does a good job at keeping it in context of the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution of Chairman Mao, while still keeping the writing fairly light. It doesn’t seem like Troost tried to find the real culture of China while he was there. I think the culture of China really lies in the people of China, and unable to speak or read the language, Troost goes into the country handicapped to the point where he’s unable to dig below the surface to the point where he could understand China at all.

While he explores far flung places, including Tibet where he finally does find blue skies and less crowding, and while I’m sure that he enjoyed this part of his travels the most, it’s also where the book stalls. The book also ends abruptly as Troost approaches North Korea with some trepidation that makes him long to return to China. The book could use another chapter to put the journey into perspective.

Overall, I’d recommend this book, and the other two written by Troost. I enjoy the humor and perspectives of the places usually only seen in episodes of Survivor and on the Discovery Channel. But I hope he goes back to China and writes a book about the people, not just the country, and then maybe we all can understand the world’s most mystifying nation a little better.

Book Review: Trader – Charles de Lint

It’s a familiar premise: two people wake up one morning and they’ve switched bodies. Freaky Friday was probably the first, and most recently, the Ryan Reynolds/Jason Bateman move The Change Up tackled it. I don’t think anyone saw that one. It was even tackled on The Daily Show this past February when Jon Stewart switched bodies with Justin Bieber.

This scenario always seems to be played up for comedy, but Trader by Charles de Lint, is the first time I’ve seen it done where the impact on the switched is really experienced for the traumatic experience that it is. Max Trader is a successful luthier (he makes musical instruments) who wakes up unexpectedly in the body of a stranger, Johnny Devlin, a deadbeat moments away from being evicted. Devlin is thrilled at the opportunity to take over Max’s life. Homeless and angry, Max tries to take back his life from someone unwilling to give it up.

I’ve read a few other novels by Charles de Lint, and he’s a bit of a master of the urban fantasy genre, mixing elements of real world city life with the magical, incorporating Native American shamanism, urban legends and fairy tales into a gritty cityscape of Newford, a microcosm of everywhere, but probably most closely resembling somewhere like Seattle.

As Max Trader navigates this city, he receives assistance from Joe Crazy Dog, and other characters familiar in de Lint’s novels, and he eventually finds himself in the spirit world where his quest continues. It’s at this point where the book loses me a little bit, as some characters find themselves in the spirit world version of Los Angeles. It was a small scene, but that setting didn’t seem to fit with the tone of the rest of the book.

If you enjoy the switched bodies type of story, or even if you’re extremely tired of it (as I was before reading Trader), this book should make the idea fresh again instead of a cliche. De Lint’s characters and dialogue are great, and Newford feels as real a city as any I know. If you haven’t read it, give it a try. You don’t need to have read any other de Lint books to know what’s going on.

The first page

Some of you may know that for a while, I’ve been working on a novel. Recently, I haven’t been working on it much, but I want to. So I’m going to post the first page or two here. Please read it and let me know what you think in the comments. My writer friend Sarah teases me about it being “chick lit” which I suppose is true if any novel with a female lead can be considered chick lit. So feel free to tease me in the comments, too. 🙂 Comments are love.

Random Acts of Coffee


            As I was getting ready for work, I knocked the fishbowl over. The water cascaded across the kitchen counter and down onto the floor, and my beta went with the flow. After I cleaned everything up and thought about it, I was surprised at my reaction, or lack thereof. My mind was on the things I had to do instead of the things I was doing, but I would have expected myself to give a little scream and rush over. Instead, I just stood there for a moment and watched it all happen. The weird thing was, you usually think of fish flopping around, unable to breathe. The beta just sat there, looking kind of bored, with his fins swept back. I just picked him up gingerly in my hands, put him back in his bowl, and filled it with a half-drunk bottle of Ethos I had in my fridge. Crisis averted.

            With plenty of time to spare before work, I left the house and headed out to the pier, and there, leaning against the rough hewn rails, looking out toward everywhere and holding the last letter from my last lover, I sipped my venti non-fat cinnamon latte and, as nonchalantly as possible, let the letter slip from my fingers. My eyes followed it as it fluttered down, but it was gone as soon as it hit the turbulence of the salty waves around the pylons of the pier. There was a feeling not unlike closure. The only accompanying thought that came to me at that moment wasn’t about him, or what happened. The only thought was to call myself “litterbug,” though I knew that, even as I silently spoke the word, the ink was bleeding and the paper was breaking down.

            In the spring, we didn’t have enough rain in Florida, and everything was brittle and dry, even though we’re on the ocean and the water table is so close to the surface, you can pretty much tap into it with a soda straw. With the drought conditions, there came a series of fires, burning forests and houses and closing down roads. A few of them were started by an arsonist who was throwing Molotov cocktails made from rags stuffed down the necks of bottles of bourbon, filled to the brim with gasoline. But one of the fires, probably the first fire, started when a girl burned a love letter in hiding. The flame leapt from letter to leaves, and was out of control before she was able to do anything. They didn’t press charges against her, and I was happy to hear that. You shouldn’t be punished for feeling passionate.

            I didn’t have that kind of passion, so my letter was down there in the deep, slowly dissolving instead of flaming out. I didn’t even have to go out of my way to destroy it. Routine brought me to the pier every time I worked a closing shift. I love the smell of the salt blowing in from the ocean, and the way it mingles with the sweet comfort of my coffee.

            I watched a cruise ship disappear into twilight shadows as the sun set at my back, and thought about those passengers on board, where they came from and where they were bound. I’d never been on a cruise, and wasn’t sure I would enjoy it, confined to the ship in tiny cabins, on the way to exotic tourist traps. But my thoughts, already mildly melancholic turned to envy as I thought how luxurious it must be to be pampered by the staff, also trapped on board with nothing to do but serve guests twelve hours a day. I was envious of just being on vacation at all.

            A chilling autumn breeze blew across my bare arms, bringing gooseflesh and a violent shiver, breaking me free from my thoughts before they became too wistful. I took a long, warming pull of coffee through the small travel lid hole and enjoyed my own personal piece of luxury – good coffee, the beach, and the orange glow of the sunset. Magic hour, I thought, the time when everything was lit as if from within. Tipping back the paper cup, I closed my eyes, taking in the last drops of the complex flavors of bitter, sweet, and spice as it spread across my tongue, the taste of a sunset in the fall.

            I slowly opened my eyes and braced myself against the rails and took one last long inhale of salt air before turning back toward land, then tossed my empty cup at the mesh metal trashcan to my left. It bounced of the rim and fell like a brick onto the boardwalk and began to roll away. I was able to grab it with an awkward lunge before it could blow into the ocean below. As I gently set the empty cup deep in the bin, I heard one of the fishermen.

            Smiling, I made eye contact, recognizing him as one of the regulars who cast their line into the waves below. I didn’t know his name, but could recognize him from the dirty white Dixie cup-style Navy hat he always wore cocked jauntily on his head. I shrugged a what-can-I-do look at him with a crooked half-smile.

            “You do me a favor, Shaquille?” the weatherworn man asked in his weatherworn voice.

            “What’s that?” I asked, still smiling, curious.

            “You have a great night.”

            I could feel my smile blossom along with the color on my cheek, and laughed. “You do the same, sailor.”

            The man chuckled back at me, eyes sparkling and mischievous, tickled by my reaction. He tipped his hat as I walked past him before turning back to his fishing. I walked past and smiled to myself at the brief exchange.

If I had a blank, I could blank!

If I had a       (school supply)     , I could         (verb)       .

How would you fill in those blanks?

That’s what A Gift for Teaching is challenging you to ask yourself during the 2011 PUSH campaign that’s going on this month. When given the right tools, a child’s potential is limitless.

I would fill in the blanks as:
If I had a      book      , I could       go on an adventure       !

When I was growing up, I loved books… and I still love books!
I love that books can take me to other worlds.
I love that books can let me experience things I’d never do in real life.
I love that books let me use my imagination.
I love that books inspire me to write.

Here are some books that meant a lot to me when I was a kid, in order of influence.

  • Any of the Little Golden Books, like The Little Red Caboose
  • Winnie the Pooh books
  • Everything by Dr. Seuss
  • Beverly Cleary books like Ralph S. Mouse, The Mouse and The Motorcycle  and all of the Hennry Huggins books
  • Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain, on which Disney based The Black Cauldron
  • C.S. Lewis  books (Narnia and his space trilogy)
  • Anything by Stephen R. Lawhead
  • John Steinbeck’s The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights 
  • Everything by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Those are just ones of the top of my head. There were so many more.
What books do you remember reading as a kid?
Of course, so many kids aren’t able to afford to buy books. They have to rely on public libraries and school libraries. And these days, school library funding is in trouble.
But you can help a child have access to books!
A Gift for Teaching offers a free store for teachers that has a corner devoted to books! Teachers can come to A Gift For Teaching and shop for free and take books for their classrooms and students.
Please consider donating the price of your favorite book to A Gift for Teaching. You can do that by going to my fundraising site at
Right now, I’m almost halfway to my goal of $200. With AGFT’s stewardship, they can turn that $200 into $2000 worth of school supplies. Including books!
Thank you so much! And don’t forget to fill in the blanks in the comments below!