Book Review: “Another Roadside Attraction” by Tom Robbins

I picked up my copy of this book from the ‘free table’ in Kalalau Valley, Kauai, and I can think of no place it more belongs. My copy was old, perhaps one of the original printings, bound together with black duck tape, moldy, and scented with lavender. It felt as much a part of the valley as anything else in that awesome place, and it’s quite a place:

Having spent four spring breaks there, I’ve met quite a few of the bohemians who live in the valley, sometimes partied with them, and partaken of their local *ahem* cuisine, beverages, and entertainments. It’s a fun place, sometimes controversial with the locals in Kauai, but also rugged and challenging. So it makes sense that the people there would like this book (though not that they gave it away). Another Roadside Attraction is basically Kalalau incarnate… er, Kalalau inlibris?

The story is a sort of hippie bible. The main characters are part of a band of American gypsies, or beatniks, or some other disparaging term from the 50’s. Amanda, the protagonist, is a young mom, cook, and animal lover who marries John Paul, the son of missionaries from The Congo. Together, they decide to set up a roadside attraction and, of all things, settle on a museum / hotdog stand, even though Amanda is a vegetarian. They complete the place with a flea circus and some other kitschy odds and ends, and end up attracting some other friends and cohorts from across the country. The story sees them tangled up in a conspiracy with the Catholic Church, haunted by government agents, and on the verge of bringing about the apocalypse. Pretty much normal drama for the hippies in Kalalau.

As with some of his other books, Tom Robbins writing here is dense and incredibly vibrant, full of colorful metaphors and similes but a bit of a mystic swamp to slog through. I was slow to get through it, but it picked up and had an awesome ending. If someone was newly moving to the states, I would recommend this to them the same way I would recommend ‘Kafka on the Shore’ to someone moving to Japan.

Difficulty: 7/10

Weirdness Level: 10/10.

Did I like it? It’s definitely a book for a particular time and place – and that place is somewhere in California in the 70’s, but Hawaii is still catching up so it sorta works.

What now? I hold onto the book until I can return it to the valley where it belongs.

Book Review: Kafka on the Shore

Kafka on the Shore was the first book I read after moving to Japan. Since then, my memories have blended with images of shrines hidden in dense cities, truck drivers at lonely coffee shops, and talking cats roaming the weeds. Then again, who’s to say I never actually experienced those things? Living in Japan was a surreal, dreamlike experience with lots of drinking – kind of like this book.

After a rereading, the thing I really liked about the Kafka was how much it felt like Japan. If you haven’t been there but want to know what it’s like, it’s perfect. It’s also just a really cool story, and the author does a great job blending in boring details of every day life with bizarre happenings, while still having things make sense. Even so, I’m not sure if I completely figured out the whole story, but I think that’s OK.

Here are some other random ratings in no particular order:

Difficulty: Medium. It’s a bit long and there are some references that might not make sense to casual readers, but I enjoyed it all the way through so no complaints.

Weirdness Level: 9/10. It has UFOs, Colonel Sanders, and some Oedipus stuff, let’s put it that way.

Was it fun? There’s definitely some gloomy stuff going on (anyone who has taught Japanese teenagers will understand that this is unavoidable. Well, maybe that’s true of all teenagers).

Reread? The next time I feel like I need to escape from our American reality.

Stretched thin and Stressed!

Fasting, meditation, and yoga have helped me with the stress of the Physics lifestyle over the years (and especially the past few months), but things are starting to get frenzied again. Our boss John is pushing us to hit some landmarks in our thesis and to aim for graduation next year. In a way, this is good. Getting start early is key when you’re working on a 200 page monster. The next deadline is next week and I probably need about 10-20 new pages written between now and then.

On the other hand, I’m heading to Virginia Tech early next month and I need to prepare a suite of readout electronics for our demonstrator detector. My colleague Kurtis is in town and he’s the perfect guy to approach for help on this – but I’ve only got a week. Yikes! Two deadlines at the end of one week. O_O

Fasting sounds crazy, but it’s not

Have you ever been hungry for an entire day? Or missed eating entirely for over 24 hours? I thought about this question while reading “Ender’s Shadow,” one of the sequels to Ender’s game. The main character is a scrawny orphan kid who struggles to survive on the streets but eventually gets recruited to help fight off an alien invasion. You know, pretty much every orphan’s story. The book was good, but for 23 year-old me it was also an insight into the lives of homeless.

Of course, I know I’ll never experience what it’s like to be a hungry kid in the Favelas (where Orson Scott Card was a missionary and likely got his inspiration), but I decided to try fasting to see what it was like. A high school teacher of mine, said he would fast on Fridays in solidarity with the poor. If he could do it once a week every week, surely I could try it at least once or twice.

Well, it turned out to be pretty hard! Shocking, right? Still, I managed to succeed that  first time, but didn’t end up doing it much over the intervening years. Occasionally I would do a day of fasting in Japan, but there were new challenges there: being tired and hungry in a classroom of sneezing 8 year-olds is a guaranteed way to get sick. So it’s been on the back-burner until relatively recently. Catnip treats are just too good

Over the holidays Amanda and I went home to Baltimore to visit friends and family. I wasn’t biking to school anymore, hiking, hitting the gym, or doing much of anything beyond drinking beer, reading books, playing games, and eating. It was relaxing, but my belly got way bigger (so did Beaker’s). Back in Hawaii, I already have an exercise routine down, but I wondered what I could do to help me shed some fat a little faster. Fasting? Why not.

So, how is it? So far, I’ve tried it every other Wednesday and it’s generally gone OK. My rules: no food, no calories outside of vitamins in the morning, and no fluids other than water, green tea, or black coffee (a recent addition). Here’s a breakdown of how it’s felt the past couple of times:

  • ‘Man, I miss my morning coffee. But that’s OK, I’m not so hungry yet.’
  • ‘Those vitamin’s kinda made me less hungry.’
  • ‘OK, biking up this hill to school seems more tiring than usual.’
  • ‘Man, I could go for a latte. I should go to Starbucks. Oh…”
  • ‘OK, it’s lunchtime and everyone is eating. What do I do now?’
  • ‘2 o’clock. That’s half a day. Not bad, right? I could eat when I get home and call it an ‘intermittent fast.’
  • ‘3:30. I’m gonna make it the whole day for sure!’
  • ‘4:30. My stomach is rumbling and my head is starting to hurt.’
  • ‘Wow, biking home was even harder than usual.’
  • ‘OK, I’m home and Elan and Amanda’s food smells amazing. Like, way more amazing than usual. Must… resist…’
  • ‘My head still kinda hurts.’
  • ‘Why does this book keep talking about food? Damn you novelists!!!’
  • ‘Zzzzz…. I’m too sleepy and tired to get out of bed and eat.’

Then the next day:

  • ‘Wow, I’m extra tired this morning, but my head feels really clear.’
  • ‘Hmmm, I feel pretty good!’
  • ‘Wow, everything smells amazing today.’
  • ‘Biking is a little tiring, but otherwise I feel better than yesterday.’
  • ‘Mmmm, delicious salad. These raw cucumbers are the most delicious thing ever.’

Is it worth it? So far I’ve experienced four major benefits:

  1. Losing a little weight / fat
  2. Feeling absolutely amazing the day after (even if I haven’t eaten yet)
  3. Less headaches, even after crazy yoga poses
  4. Shoulder injury feels way better

Overall, I’d say it’s been really beneficial. So far, I’ve succeeded in doing two 36 hour fasts  since January and a couple of half-day fasts. My go-to day is Wednesday and I’m aiming for twice a month. Even though it tough at the beginning, I know I will feel awesome afterward, so I’m planning to try again next week and see how it goes.

More Regular Updates on the Way

I’ve made a few resolutions for the new year, including working on my physical and mental health, focusing more on my work in physics, and spending more time on writing. Last year, I decided to attempt to write a short story per month. I didn’t reach my goal, but I did manage to write six or seven stories, so not bad.

I know I’ll be busy this year, especially with my dissertation, but I think writing one page per day is absolutely doable, whether it’s creative writing, journaling, or scientific work. The lack of a digital journal has also been bothering me. For many, many years – an embarrassing number, really – I kept a journal on I started when I was 16 and kept it up to date into grad school. It had stories from my time in drama club in high school, my journey out west and hiking in Montana, my blundering through early relationships and dating, my successes and failures at UMBC, and the drunken shenanigans I encountered while teaching in Japan.

Opendiary closed several years ago. In the meantime, I’ve been keeping paper journals. These are a lot of fun, and in some ways better – If I’m ever old and have kids or grandkids, I can pass them on. They’re also generally more *ahem* private.

That said, I think it’s good, and more practical, to keep an online writing practice going. So I’m going to get back at, right here, on this blog I set up here on my website. Why not? At least the robots that visit will be happy. Hello, fellow robots! Err, uh. I swear I’m not a robot. Just a scientist.

Support my novel, Silent City on Kindle Scout!

Silent City is a ghost story about Baltimore that started off as “Spirited Away” on the East Coast and evolved into something entirely different:

When bookish Anne Raskolnikov wakes to discover that Baltimore has been abandoned, she quietly takes it all in stride. Armed only with her journal and a box of cereal, she and her neighbor’s cat venture out to explore. However, they soon learn that something odd has happened to their hometown. The people have disappeared, the ravens and squirrels have learned to talk, and the buildings are haunted by all-consuming monsters. Stranger still, the ghosts and ravens are all looking for two things: a young girl with black hair and a red hoodie and a magical book hidden beneath the city streets.

Check out the campaign on Amazon! If you nominate and Amazon decides to publish it, you’ll receive a free digital copy. And if you don’t like it, well, that’s just your opinion dude! Link below:

Click here to check it out!

The Kindle Scout Campaign for Silent City Has Launched!

It’s been a long journey, starting the book as part of a NanoWriMo project years ago, to editing, to reediting, sending it around to people for comments, reediting, and submitting to places. I’m sure there are still some spots to improve, but I’ve had a great time writing this and I think it’s time to move on to other projects. That said, it’s got cats, ravens, Bromoseltzer Tower, and lots of references to random books inside, so what’s not to get? The story is set in Baltimore, with lots of references to local culture, so I’m hoping people from the area enjoy it, at least.

So what’s going on with it now? Basically, I’ve submitted the manuscript to Amazon via their “Kindle Scout” program. If it gets enough nominations, or the editors like it enough, or Amazon speaks to the elder gods deep beneath the Earth and they approve – then I get a contract, some cash, and free promotion in the kindle store.


Click here to check out the publishing campaign on kindle!

If you nominate the book and it wins, you get a free copy. If you nominate and it doesn’t win, you can either check it out on Amazon or I’ll send along a copy for free! If you want to nominate it and never read it because ebooks are lame, that makes sense too. If you’re thinking, “Who the hell is this guy and why should I nominate his book?” – OK, fair enough, I have no idea how you ended up here either.

Potential Book Covers

Friends, as some of you may know, I’ve been working on a novel set in Baltimore for many years now. The book is basically done, but I need a cover for it. I’ve toyed around with some ideas and come up with a few different variations. Covers, colors, backgrounds, and other things can be swapped pretty easily.  Let me know what you think!

SilentCityCoverA SilentCityCoverB SilentCityCoverC SilentCityCoverD SilentcityCoverE


The Black Hole Behind Me

by Ryan Walraven

A black hole trails behind me,

a dormant shadow from my past.

It smells of dust and empty spaces

and sounds like post movie silence. 

In its wake, all ruins are devoured,

the mess of my bedroom floor turned to carpet,

old books and papers gone dry.

Photos and posters turn blank,

like the last page of a book

which no one will ever read.

Its radiation pierces flesh,

seals old wounds with ultraviolet precision.

The event horizon swells around me,

a black envelope of air-conditioned space

where deep within some hint of memory still resides

never to be seen again.

© Ryan Walraven 2015


by Ryan Walraven

The wind flows, thick with wood smoke

and leaf-snagged chatter from far away roads.

I sink my hands into the mud and dredge

the fallen patterns of the sun.

In swaths of star-shaped leaves, I see math’s of

empty measure; by dockside, waves gathering.

The wind urges them on, and I listen for the crash.

Air, mud, trees, seas. The signs

blend like streams of incense, or the browns

and creams upon a cup of tea.

© Ryan Walraven 2015