29.8.11

Jerome Klapka Jerome - Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog)


Rating: 7.5

Read at some point in my late teens (1999?) and reread at the end of a wet British summer in 2011.

The English original version is way better for getting Jerome's devastating sense of humour. And Montmorency's joyrides.

I love how this book is irresistibly lapidary in its descriptions of the towns along the river Thames.
Let's take the six lines dedicated to Abingdon, where I currently live:

"Abingdon is a typical country town of the smaller order - quiet, eminently respectable, clean and desperately dull. It prides itself on being old, but whether it can compare in this respect with Wallingford and Dorchester seems doubtful. A famous abbey stood here once, and within what is left of its sanctified walls they brew a bitter ale nowadays".

In short, better than a Baedeker.

Now that this bitter ale is bygone (Morland, was named), the pride of calling itself old or rather "ancient" stands while quietness and dullness walk arm in arm. It's that eminent respectability which puzzles me: it probably took a sabbatical century.

27.8.11

Mark Twain - A Tramp Abroad


Rating 7.2

I bought this book by mistake in one of those charity shops that make any idle and rainy Saturday in Oxford a treasure hunt.
What I thought I had found was actually "Innocents Abroad" by the same Mark Twain, but somehow the word "tramp" was left out of my raptorous glance.

Well, "A Tramp Abroad" revolves around pretty much the same topic of "Innocents Abroad" which is Mr Twain touring Europe proud of being an American but at the same time eager to get all that the Old Continent has to offer to his transatlantic eyes.

A very good reason to grab this book is its humour.
One cannot wonder that Mark Twain was so funny a writer. Or perhaps it's just me having read "Tom Sawyer" and "Huckleberry Finn" when I was a kid and getting bored to death with all that exhausting fence painting business and that haughty Becky Thatcher.

And yet "A Tramp Abroad" is funny, witty and it's clear how Twain got amused in writing some of its pages. It's a kind of humour that one may find in a celebrated British author of the same period (1880s) such as Jerome Klapka Jerome, but Twain adds up his American touch: the exaggeration of likelihood.

Where Jerome (an eager traveller too) loved paradoxes and observations about the cultural oddities he found while navigating the Thames or cycling in Germany, Twain liked to put himself at the centre of the scene. But he did so in a very amusing way by pretending to be the bravest person around fooling us and himself in the process.
The travels of "A Tramp Abroad" are not particularly exotic involving Germany, Switzerland and a bit of Italy and Twain is not masterful in telling us how and why he got from, say, Heidelberg to Lucerne. Where he excels is in collecting the local stories, news and legends and reporting them on his account along with amazing fictional dialogues and expeditions deign of a maharaja.

Here you can find many gems like a passionate praise of tasty American food along with a lot of sarcasm referred to European menus thay may disappoint a German or a French gourmet, but it's actually only another example of Twain's comic exaggeration.
Twain is not afraid of despising the sense of perspective and proportions of the Old Masters in painting, in calling St Mark's church in Venice "ugly" and the edelweiss flower "cigar-coloured". There is no arrogance or sense of superiority in doing this, although someone may think and may have thought the opposite.
It seems unbelievable that Henry James lived in the same years and saw a good deal of the same British-American jet-set tourism portraying it in the most solemn and antiquated terms.

And then there are appendixes, introduced by a quote by Herodotus.
Mind you, do not miss these appendixes! And if your edition of "A Tramp Abroad" doesn't include them, raise an official protest with the bookseller who sold it to you!

Appendix D, titled "The Awful German Language", is one of the funniest things I've ever read. Eighteen pages of pure intellectual pleasure dedicated to the struggle Twain had with studying German with all the grammar exceptions, peculiarities and oddities of that language he could recall crowned by eight suggestions to make German better. I have never studied German, but I laughed till tears came to my eyes in reading this stuff. And appendix F "German Journals" is irresistible too. Not to mention appendix C "The College Prison". Etc, etc.

On the whole, this book is huge and heavy and for that reason not quite comfortable to read if you're not surrounded by pillows half-lying on a double bed, but "A Tramp Abroad" is worth a try when you want to cheer up yourselves. Not a book to travel with, but a book to travel for.

25.8.11

George Orwell - Homage to Catalonia


Rating 7.6

Reading anything by Orwell is always worth and rewarding.
And "Homage to Catalonia" makes no exception.
As someone pointed out somewhere the way Orwell understood and described Spain surpasses by far what Hemingway wrote pretty much in the same years about the same country.

But while Hemingway spent his Spanish time in a sort of cosmopolitan way drinking, waking up late, watching bullfighting, munching tapas and generally having fun (Fiesta!), Orwell was freezing in trenches, picking up cigarettes butts in the mud, being assaulted by rats, dealing with faulty guns and being hunted down for no reason in a hostile Barcelona.

Now, nobody forced Orwell to have that kind of unpleasant experience and he later reckoned how he was pretty much a fool in volunteering among the socialist forces in the Spanish Civil War, but let's be frank: could you picture Ernest doing the same without asking for a bloody daiquiri?
The toll of that bell didn't really sound.

The less convincing part of this book is actually the first one when Orwell reports about his -rather modest- military actions with that sort of detailed step by step account that I don't really like although we knew he had a diary with him so that we expect how every tiny detail here is true.
But this doesn't happen very often and the most clever and interesting part of this book are the ones in which Orwell struggles with cold, lack of hygiene, disillusion and boredom. Something that another idealist like his countryman Lord Byron would have never mentioned.
Orwell's observations on the people who fought (or better waited) with him in the trenches are also very good in pointing out the absolute naivete of the whole combatants, mostly teenagers coming from peasant families which were hardly able to communicate with the foreigners fighting at their side and for the same cause.

And then come the hectic Barcelona days and the whole book stands up on a higher level.
What we have is now Orwell at his very best. And writing about real paranoids, not fictional ones, in a way that wallops master Kafka. What I can say is that I have not only read but felt the feverish state of Orwell and a whole town where good and evil, friends and enemies got suddenly all mixed up with no apparent logic.

This is a book to reread and to hold in a visible shelf.
This is a book that teaches you something in its own way and will always do.

16.8.11

George Orwell - The Road to Wigan Pier


Rating: 7.3

I took the Road to Wigan Pier way too fastly.
I drove by night through the 215 milestones between the beginning and the end of this trip.

I have just parked for a few minutes halfway on the blank space between part I and part II. I turned off the engine and the headlights, had a little nap, restarted and drove straight to the very last page.

I should have not been in a hurry. And yet I couldn't go any slower. Curiosity pushed me to run, to accelerate. And in that speed some details faded away, were left behind unseen, unchecked, misread.
The way back will be different. At this time I will pay more attention to the places I passed through, to the once appalling slums of Sheffield, to the black-faced ghosts emerging no more from the Lancashire ground.

The first part of this trip backwards and northwards was better than the second one. The guy I traveled with, a certain George, was definitely more interesting and entertaining while talking about that time in which he had the same trip in the 1930s. I remember how he kept me awake with his stories involving apathetic landlords, rotten tripe, smelly lodging rooms for men, a visit to a local mine. And poverty. And his admiration for those who struggle to get a living out of coal.

I have just lost his track when George started comparing the 240 tons extracted per year by a miner and "enough to pave Trafalgar Square two feet deep" with the "two medium size shelves" he could fill with all the books he would have written in his lifetime ("If I will live at least 60 years").
And honestly I couldn't understand why George was so much against tinned peas and tinned tuna while branding homemade bread as a waste of food.
"Wait a moment, chappie - I told him - Don't you think this is a contradiction? On the one hand you accuse poor people not to eat fresh food and on the other you suggest to the British housewives to buy their bread at Tesco?"
He blushed and admitted that the last time he made his own grocery was around 1984 while he was trying to impress a certain clergyman's daughter.

The second part of the travel was a bit boring. First of all, we saw no landscape at all. The night was so dark that it looked like we were traveling in a tunnel or in one of those coal mines.
Apart from calling himself "a snob" and "a genteel bourgeois" with "an educated Southern accent" George talked about his Burmese Days and his Ins and Outs in Paris and London, with a lot of blabbering regarding "social classes" as seen by some old ladies he met in Brighton or something. Anyways. I'm afraid I haven't quite understood what was the point.

And then suddenly George pointed out how he can have an affection for a murderer or a sodomite but not for a man whose breath stinks "habitually stinks, I mean".
I got worried. We had only eaten corned beef and bread with dripping that night, so I felt like I irritated the nostrils and the genteel snobism of my car-sharer. I rummaged for o a peppermint on the dashboard, but only found out a handful of aspidistra leaves. "Keep them flying - said George lowering the window - They're coming up for air". Once again, I felt like I missed out what he meant.

When we finally reached the Wigan Pier, George paid his part of the gas and waved goodbye. We will see each other soon, on the way back. But at this time he will drive and I will talk.
Four wheels good, two legs bad.

13.8.11

Dave Eggers - Zeitoun


Rating 7.7

Praise Dave Eggers!

For who would have ever foretold that the novelist who became famous with a self-hagiography of a book with an impossible title ready to be mangled ("A staggering work of heartbreaking genius" no wait: was it "A heartbreaking work of staggering genius"?) could have become one of the most reliable and worth voices coming from the US?

Guys, this is the same chap who wrote a biography of his unfortunate life when he hit 30 years old and later became the editor of an independent magazine printed down in Iceland and inexplicably shipped to the US (or so I heard).
A novelist who was easy to christen as a champion of exaggerated self-esteem and complete lack of any modesty.

And yet this same Dave Eggers who failed the proof of the 2nd novel delivering the interlocutory "You Shall Know Our Velocity" was able to write down at least two gems of books like "What Is the What" and "Zeitoun". Two books that are actually ripen fruits not only of the same tree but of the very same branch called "Voice of Witness".

Two stories that before being written and published and read and reviewed were lived and told and listened and jotted down.
Because both "What Is the What" and "Zeitoun" began in the same way with Mr Eggers visiting someone who had a story to tell. A process that took hours, days, weeks and months of oral narration and patient listening skills before developing into a proper book.

You will get what "Zeitoun" is about by other reviews here and around, but let's say that this book revolves around the life of a man and his family being stricken by hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. Where the aftermath is actually the worst part of the tragedy having to cope not with the violence of nature but with the arrogance and stupidity of human beings especially those wearing a uniform.

Nothing is perfect and this book has its pros and cons too, but as a matter of fact "Zeitoun" deserves, requires, asks for being read. And I am glad I did it.