Saturday, April 14, 2007

Eric Bruntjen's Book

A Book Review
[A Hot Blue Sea
by Eric Bruntjen]
I wouldn’t have dreamed
this little kid would be an author
by Charlie Leck [15 April 2007]

I remember Eric Bruntjen as a little boy. He was kind of a sniffling kid; that is, his nose was always running and he was forever trying to snuff it back up inside and occasionally he’d wipe stuff that wouldn’t snuff on his shirt-sleeve. Even then, he had a gangling, clumsy look about him. He was quiet as a church-mouse and every time I glanced at him he seemed to be staring at me, wondering what kind of critter I was anyway. He had a big brother who was loud, clumsy and adventurous. I got to know his brother quite well because he went and married into the family and became a son-in-law. However, Eric remained quiet and mysterious to me and then grew up and went away somewhere. I virtually forgot about him. And now he’s an author. And, I’ve read his book.

The little kid turned out okay. I learned a lot about him from the book. He’s bright and witty. He’s kind and passionate about love and life. He’s also mature and level-headed and has got all his priorities straight.

I’ve got a lot to tell you about this book, but I’ll try to be brief. First off – getting the difficult stuff out of the way first – it’s a darn good book. At least it is from my perspective – which is the only way I can judge a book. I enjoyed it immensely and when I finished it up and put it down, I was completely glad I’d read it. Any book I can say that about gets lots of stars.

He says somewhere, in some little corner of his book, that it isn’t really a book because he just wrote it as a gift of love to his wife and because he wanted to repay her some little amount for the great gift she’d given him. Well, he’s wrong! It is a real book because real people have gotten hold of it in one way or another and they limbered it up by bending the spine a bit and rolling the pages; and then they put their feet up and began reading it; then, after a while, they put a bookmark in it and set it down so they could go to the toilet or get another cup of coffee; and finally they finished up the book and set it aside and had feelings about it. That, my quiet, modest, good young man is what a book is – by definition.

This book was presented to Melanee, his wife, as a Christmas gift. I, therefore, declare this book to be a Christmas Book. Since I am one of only a very few authorities on the subject, everyone is going to have to take my word for it and also consider it such. Therefore, also, it goes into my own very substantial collection of Christmas Books. These are not books about Christmas, mind you, but they are books that were written and published in small numbers to be given to friends, family and loved ones at Christmas. Among many others, in my collection I have Christmas Books written by one of my daughters, Robert Frost, Grantland Rice, William Styron, John Updike and me. Young Eric Bruntjen’s book is now on the shelves where I keep my collection of Christmas Books. So, don’t go trying to tell me it’s not a real book. It most certainly is and that’s the end of that discussion.

What makes it officially a Christmas Book? The following is found on the book’s dedication page.

Merry Christmas Melanne.
Thanks for a great adventure.

I wondered a little bit how that little kid – the one I was remembering from years ago – could come up with a wife like Melanee. I got to meet her this past Thanksgiving and she really is an extraordinary woman.

To be married to a truly great traveler
is a gift that can never be repaid.
This book, however, is Eric’s first feeble
attempt at settling up anyway.
Merry Christmas Melanee!

The book, A Hot Blue Sea, is a very well written travel diary, retelling the adventures that Eric and Melanee shared as they traveled across southern Greece in the summer of 2006.

As I read the book, I regularly found myself chuckling. I hollered out to my wife that it was a dang good book and really charming. A few moments later, because I’d set it aside momentarily to go fetch a piece of cheese, the little woman swooped up the book and began to read. I didn’t get the book back for the rest of the day because she never let it get out of hand. She read it cover to cover, laughing merrily as she did and saying, every so often, that I was going to really enjoy this part or that part. Having been robbed of my book, I had to settle in with the Sunday edition of the New York Times.

On Monday it was all mine again and I eased into a comfy chair and prepared for some more chuckles and set about finishing it up. I had been earlier delighted by some of Eric’s simple, yet descriptive, accounts of their travels.

“Pedestrians in Greece accumulate on the median like penguins trapped on an iceberg. Bobbing and weaving for a better view of oncoming traffic, they stare at the road with wide eyes before risking everything in a mad dash from one island of safety to another.”

Well, that’s pretty good by any writer’s standards and it wasn’t a singular example. Time and again I came across sentences and paragraphs just as good and just as descriptive.

The two adventurers (I think this is a better descriptive noun than ‘travelers’ would be) tried to spend their nights camping as often as they could. That’s good in this case because one is not likely to meet some of the characters and critters in hotels that these two youngsters met in campgrounds; and then, therefore, the narrative would not have been so exciting and humorous. Take the blood-thirsty spider as an example. So named by the author, the creature paid a visit to Eric’s sleeping bag as he slept beneath the stars on a hillside near the town of Delphi. It caused Eric to awaken with a start and to start “screaming like a little girl.”

“In order to put the speed of this thing into perspective, consider that the fastest human can run a hundred meters in about ten seconds. That corresponds to roughly two body lengths per second. In other words, damn fast. The arachnid spawn from hell that was attacking us ran up the full length of my six-foot-six-inch frame in no less than two seconds. The spider was about four inches long so, essentially, it was covering ten body lengths per second. Whoa!”

In defense of human speed, Eric forgot to point out that the blood-thirsty spider from hell had many more legs to work with and, therefore, his comparative calculations are not so impressive at all.

Now I’ve only introduced you to this encounter with one of dear Charlotte’s ancient relatives. It goes on for considerable length and kept me giggling all the way to its final conclusion – what must have been a very comical race between an unencumbered spider and two human beings with unraveled, comatose sleeping bags dragging along behind, to the safety of a tent. Considering the speed of this monster, which Eric had earlier described, I don’t know how he expects the reader to believe that they really got there before he; unless, of course, the explanation of a waiter they met some time later is to be considered accurate. “They are as afraid of you as you are of them,” the fellow said. The spider was probably running in the opposite direction.

Let me assure you that this book is not all giggles and guffaws. There’s much more than that. There is plenty of serious and well-done description of the country-side through which they traveled. Though he’s no John Updike, Eric has a handy way with words. He’s delightfully folksy and he’s thrifty with words the way Hemingway was.

“…the top of Mount Parnassus was a series of rolling hills and small, spoon shaped rocks with an occasional stone outcropping or jagged gash thrown in for good measure. It was an incredibly complex landscape with a rich and vibrant contour; almost organic and globular the geology was fascinating…. Walking the mangled line between terror and comfort was something we grew accustomed to during our stay in Greece. The jagged, deadly shoulders of Parnassus were just the first in a long line of places where we stood with success on one side and ruin on the other.”
Well, maybe not Hemingway either, but certainly very fine and precise writing and many leaps better than most all travel diaries. Besides, how many travel accounts will tell you about an encounter with magnificent goat poop and urine eating larvae and how they rather “saunter with a stumbling, rolling motion.”

Eric’s very precise description of a painting that depicts a gigantomachy that must have taken place near Delphi, during which a giant is having his very private parts consumed by a famished lion, is worthy of his concluding comment: “…the look on his face is priceless.” Whose face, Eric – the lion or the giant?

A couple dozen really excellent photos add some deliciousness to the book. The images make it abundantly clear from whence cometh the book’s title. Indeed, the photographs alone made the price I paid for this book well worth it.

I probably should have pointed out – no certainly should have pointed out – early in this essay that the writer is no casual or novice traveler. He was well trained by his father in the art of travel and has explored the Amazon River, parts of Africa, traveled through China, roamed many regions of Mexico and climbed more mountains than most of us have seen. He knows how to rate a travel experience. He knows the value of spending as much time as possible on foot in order to truly savor and consume the experience. I would sign on to travel with him or his big brother any time.

Sailing along on the blue Aegean Sea with him and Melanee and their skipper, Paris, was a truly wonderful experience and I was able to viscerally feel the sea mist and wind on my face. How wonderful the day, while we were on our way to Mykonos, that we shut down the engine and sought our power from the wind alone.

“…It was a fabulous experience, one that more talented writers than I have failed to adequately describe. The wind was strong and true to our heading, it powered us along at seven knots, easily pushing the Jasmine up over the consistent swells. When sailing it occurs to me that the winds, a product of the very spin of our planet, are on my team. They work for me. It’s a potent feeling; that the whole planet is behind you. There’s not an engine in the universe with more horsepower.

“Minutes after switching off the motor a half-dozen dolphins leaped through the waves toward us. They moved like superheroes, bounding effortlessly through the water. Right then I knew why ancient mariners considered them a good omen. They move with such grace and precision that a sense of pride swept over me. Surely I’d done something right in this lifetime to deserve this gift. They were a pleasure to watch, their energy contagious and inspirational.”

Okay! Let me wrap up the package. All in all, I’d count it as one of the really good reading experiences I’ve had. The book could have used one work-through by a careful editor who, while not changing the wonderful, easy going style of the author, would have caught a half dozen sentences that needed smoothing and clarifying. It’s the only criticism I have and, understanding the circumstance and the sweet goals of the book, it is a very unimportant thing to say. Here, to explain my point, is one of the few paragraphs that should have been reworked only slightly. It is a lovely account and one doesn’t want to come away from it having stumbled over a word, wondering if that word or phrase should have been something else.

“About a kilometer from where the asphalt road faded into dust we passed a shepherd riding a disheartened burro. The shepherd was skinny and leathered to
the point of caricature. He had a thick black moustache and wore filthy white pants and a buttoned shirt. He rode sidesaddle and smacked his steed on the ass with a stick. He could have been any ethnic peasants from Chile to Mongolia. It was like I’d seen him a thousand times before. Unlike the other shepherds we’d seen in Greece, this old man waved enthusiastically as he comically bounced past us on his tiny animal.”

Don’t get me wrong! The author has penned an exceptionally good book. The mistake almost every writer makes is thinking he doesn’t need an editor. I have found it is virtually impossible to read one’s own writing critically without setting it aside for a month or two or more, and then going back to it and reading it more like a stranger than a parent.

[A Hot Blue Sea: Adventures Across Attica] This is a very, very good book and I think you could order a copy of it by going to

Thanks, Eric. I’m proud to have this book in my Christmas Book collection. And, I’m proud of you for writing it.

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