Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Latest books read

Over the last week and a half I’ve gone through Anne Tyler’s “Digging to America”, “My life in France” by Julia Child and Alex Proud’homme and Abby Goodnough’s “Ms. Moffett’s First Year”. They were all heartwarming, each in their own way (respectively, a work of fiction, a memoir and a journalistic narration), and yet they are not so far apart. The three books have as their main characters women who, past the youthful years that are supposed to be our best, find a new passion, in motherhood, love, food and teaching.

Friday, November 17, 2006

"History Lesson for Girls" - Aurelie Sheehan

If there is a cozier feeling than seeing a book you think you’ll love and then reading it and loving it just like you knew all along you would, I don’t know what it is. A book like “History Lesson for Girls” restores my faith in the world and in people.
I read Aurelie Sheehan’s book in two afternoons, and now I wish I had stretched it out a while longer – even though it would be impossible to hold on for more than another couple of days – but I couldn’t wait to follow Alison Glass and her best friend Kate Hamilton in their “perambulations” on horse back, as well as the ones they made up for their lost heroine of olden days, Sarah Beckingworth.
Now, if you’re not into first person narratives of young teenagers, maybe you won’t be as awed as me by “History Lesson for Girls”. Then again if you’re not, you probably won’t appreciate many of the books I’ve written about here (which means, by the way, that you suck).
Set in 1975, in the waspy small-town of Weston, Connecticut, Sheehan’s book covers almost a whole school year of thirteen-year-old Alison’s life, whose painter mom and poet/university English teacher dad, have just moved to this picture perfect New England hideout for wealthy men and their bored wives. Getting adjusted to Weston seems, at first glance, like it will be harder for the girl’s parents: even though Alison suffers from scoliosis and has to wear a Frankenstein-like contraption called a Milwaukee Brace to force her S shaped spine into a more conventional orientation, she gets “saved” by Kate Hamilton even before she sets foot in her new junior high – or maybe its Peaches and Jazz, the ponies, who do the saving. Riding in nearby trails, crossing icy streams and racing their hearts out is what turns Alison and Kate into best friends (that, and sneaking to smoke Winstons together). They even create a girl named Sarah Beckinworth for a school project about Independence War era Weston: just like them she is brave, fierce, self-sufficient and a heck of a rider.
Alison’s mom, on the other hand, ends up being sucked into a grand scheme for the town’s jubilee organized by a very color coordinated group who call themselves the Women of History, despite being a bona fide bohemian, while dad mopes around believing that hypocritical expressions such as “helping the community” are only the first step down a very frightening road that will end up, surely, in Republican Party membership.

But let’s not forget this is the seventies we’re talking about, the decade that most sordidly popularized an unhealthy mix of politics, religion and sex. Even while the young girls escape the constraints of time – theirs is a timeless friendship – the parents prove too weak to resist society’s pull. A case in point is Kate’s father, Tut (not his real name), a self-appointed Egyptian shaman, turned millionaire thanks to his book “Pyramid Love” whose message is that buying is holy or as he puts it a “ spiritual basis to acquisition”– or Alison’s mother who drags her daughter through yoga, faith healing and other new-age pursuits hoping to set her spine straight.
I’ll leave the plot twists and bittersweet ending alone for those willing to give the book a try. I liked especially how the leitmotif of history is not obviously (or at all) tied with the girl’s story, how there are some loose ends and things left unexplained. Even if our narrator is now grown-up, she doesn’t feel a need to spell it all out – in this, and also in its tone and rhythm “History Lesson for Girls” closely resembles Life.

"Miss American Pie" - Margaret Sartor

Turning into a young woman is a process both filthy and holy. Margaret Sartor gives us a look into those that are, in a lot of ways, the least feminine years of our lives, the absolute worst and sometimes incredibly amazing, teenage years.
Almost since the beginning, “Miss American Pie” made images appear in my mind, images I had seen before. It didn’t take long to realize they were Sally Mann’s photographs of her kids in “Immediate Family”, and now, I can hardly think about the book without getting these “mannesque” stills wafting in.
From 1972, when she was thirteen years old, until 1977, when she turned eighteen, Margaret Sartor kept a diary, which she has now published. Two older sisters (mostly absent from day to day life since they were both about to leave for college when the diary starts), a younger brother, a next door neighbor, a beloved pony and horse, a cast of girlfriends and boyfriends, an old-fashioned dad and an “artistic” mom, make up the characters of this coming-of-age story set in small-town Louisiana.
There are themes in “Miss American Pie” which resound in every adolescent girl. Maybe we didn’t all have a pony but we sure as hell which we had, and we all hated our parents, our girlfriends and ourselves from thirteen on. Our hair was something to be loathed and which caused almost unbearable pain, as did other, assorted parts of our body. Boys were run after, and away, from on alternate weeks. Everything was awful and cool in equal measures.
But we didn’t all grow up in the almost rural South where nature is still there for kids to walk in at night or dawn in near absolute safety (from anyone but themselves); where you experience the good and bad of living surrounded by animals, (where deer hunting is still a ritual for young boys) where race and religion are still defining issues; where girls start drinking, smoking, driving and lying at such a young age, while almost simultaneously they decide to give your life to the glory of the Lord. This intoxicating mixture of sacred and profane, that is frequently, unintentionally funny, is well illustrated in the 1974 diary entry “I wonder if Jesus was sexy”. Remember what it was like to be both shallow and deep?

“September 21
God loves a cheerful giver. I’ve decided to be cheerful.

September 22
Cheerfulness is not in my nature. I’ve decided I’m going to improve my mind instead. I’m also considering giving away all my favorite clothes.”

Images like Mann’s “Jessie and the Deer, 1985”, where the little girl is dressed in a ballet tutu with ballerina shoes, next to the back of an open pick-up truck, from which a dead deer’s head with a gash in the neck hangs; or “Candy Cigarette, 1989” where a more grown up Jessie looks straight at the camera – at her mother – with the eyes of a thirty-eight year old divorcé in a nine year-old’s body seem to came directly from this narrative universe. Just like Mann’s images are always raw, so are Sartor’s entries not usually more than a couple of lines long. They seem to say that growing up does not sit well with posing or writing for hours.
Going through adolescence is such a strange process, that even when you see it through every scientific viewpoint, biology, psychology, there always seems to be something very important missing. If you want to look at it from a magical perspective, one who is closer to the real feel of it, a good place to start is “Miss American Pie” or “Immediate Family”. You will not be able to look away for a second – if you do, you end up missing the whole thing.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

My 10 Favorite Travel Books

Simon Winchester – Krakatoa - The Day the World Exploded

Tony Horwitz – Into the Blue – Boldly going where Captain Cook has gone Before

Tony Horwitz – Confederates in the Attic – Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War

Bill Bryson – The Lost Continent – Travels in Small-Town America

Bill Bryson – A Walk in the Woods

Thurston Clarke - Islomania

Elaine Sciolino – Persian Mirrors - The elusive face of Iran

Christiane Bird – Neither East Nor West – One Woman’s Journey through the Islamic Republic of Iran

Will Ferguson – Hokkaido Highway Blues – Hitchhiking Japan

– Take Me With You – A round-the-world journey to invite a stranger home

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

"Beyond the Blue Horizon", "Chasing the Monsoon" and "Tales from the Torrid Zone" by Alexander Frater

Travel writing: when it’s good, it’s great; when it’s bad, it’s usually written by a Brit. At least that was my conclusion after a quick survey of the two shelves I’ve allotted to the genre.

My introduction to travel writing came in the form of Bruce Chatwin’s books – first translated into Portuguese in the mid-nineties. His “In Patagonia” was partly responsible for my choice of Anthropology as a degree, and therefore becoming utterly useless for the national job market – something for which I should either sue his estate or thank him eternally. Whatever.
Since then, I’ve read a number of travel books and though I’m no connoisseur, at the very least, as they say, I know what I like. This is it:

  • I like an author who does his/hers historical research, but doesn’t feel compelled to dump it all on the readers, just to prove it. If it’s really boring or incomprehensible, either make it simple and entertaining or just leave it out, for god sake. It’s not my fault you have been stuck at the library for the past eight months.

  • People. If you’re not good at talking to people and getting then to open up, and at thinking about them as human beings just like yourself (like V. S. Naipaul, whose every conversation makes for uncomfortable reading in “The Middle Passage” or “A Turn in the South”), it is better to refrain from travel writing. The British writers suffer particularly from this last affliction, especially when around their old stomping grounds in the East – they just can’t shake the old Empire shadow, I guess.

  • Diversity. Don’t make it all about one subject – history, politics, nature, one person, I like a little of everything. Books with a theme are wonderful, but there is no need to become monomaniacal. In this respect, I think Simon Winchester’s “Krakatoa”, although maybe not a travel book per se, is nearly perfect: it’s got history, geography, geology, botany, biology, anecdotes, personal recollections and a couple of more things (on the other hand his “Map that changed the world” is the exact opposite). Themed travel writing offers its own pitfalls, the most dangerous being when the subject overrides the travels – such as in “Colour – Travels through the paintbox”, by Victoria Finlay, a very accomplished book about the history of pigments, but where the fact that the writer is in India or Spain is largely secondary to the narration, which is focused solely on the processes and people who obtain the pigments, and even so is 438 pages long; one of those cases where you feel the author is telling you absolutely everything she learned during the research stage.

  • Last but definitely not least, humor. Dour and gloomy whiners should be banned from perhaps all writing, but especially travel writing. There’s nothing worse than traveling with someone who is constantly getting aggravated over train schedules, bad food or inconvenient people, and nothing better than being guided by someone who can have a laugh at being cheated, fooled or insulted (Bill Bryson is the man, of course).

  • And so, rather belatedly, we reach the matter at hand, Alexander Frater’s “Beyond the Blue Horizon”. This was my third Frater, after “Chasing the Monsoon” and “Tales from the Torrid Zone”. Frater is the opposite of monomaniacal. If anything, his books go through so many places and times all at once that the pace is dizzying. It’s not that he explores that many subjects: his favorites throughout remain meteorology, aviation, tropical medicine, with pretty girls and alcohol the two recurring leitmotifs while in transit. Born in the pacific island nation of Tuvalu, his grandfather and father were local celebrities - as much as severe Scot missionaries can be, anyway – who provided the first organized care in the way of medicine, and religion, of course, to the natives. Obliged to leave because of World War Two, the Frater family spent some time in the Fiji, and after studying in Australia the author made his way to the metropolis where he became a journalist, and eventually the Observer’s chief travel correspondent.

    That Frater is well traveled there can hardly remain any doubt – he managed to write “Tales from the Torrid Zone”, 378 pages long, and tell stories on forty-one countries he has personally visited, and still mention thirty others. What did I learn about Guyana, Laos or Gambia I can´t recall exactly, but I now know there is a foundry in London where you can order bells, the smallest of which cost around two thousand pounds. The reason I know this is because the most important story in the book is about the author’s generosity in offering his old church in Tuvalu a new bell – not very modest, but for all intents the best episode in the book.

    From 1990, “Chasing the Monsoon” is, to my mind, the best Frater. Having a set goal – following the monsoon in India to the final destination of Cherranpunji, “the world’s wettest place”, a pilgrimage his father planned but never made – does wonders for his writing: it reigns him into a specific place and phenomena and still allows him to recount once again his childhood, which was extraordinary.

    Goaded by “Chasing the Monsoon” and since there was only one other book by Frater I hadn’t read, I embarked on “Beyond the Blue Horizon”. The Time Out blurb on the cover reads, “You’ll have great difficulty putting this down”. Well I put it down about three months ago, and had to force myself to finish the remaining two-thirds in two days, or I knew I would never get through it. I should say this was Frater’s first book, first published in 1986, and having the others it is undeniable he got a lot better at it.

    In “Beyond the Blue Horizon” the writer undertakes to follow, by commercial flights whenever possible, the Imperial Airways Eastbound service of the thirties, London to Darwin. Now, I like airplanes just as much as the next person – which means, I guess, that I might like to read about the experience of flying or about people who are passionate about it, but not necessarily about the technical parts of the process – but this book, 430 pages long, was just too much for me. Part of it, is caused by Frater’s own virtuousness, since he sticks as closely as possibly to the old schedule, and therefore never spends more than, on average, one night in each stop, and doesn’t even leave the airport in about half of the fifty-two stops. It’s all very well if you want to know the name of a lot of airports, their history, and the models of the airplanes on the tarmac on the hours Frater goes trough, and read with him extracts of journals of old Imperial passengers, but for the rest of us, quite tedious. All the interviews are with airport or airline managers or people otherwise connected with modern flying (or a “pretty” or “striking” air stewardess when he gets the chance).

    You do get a feeling of how exciting it must have been in the first days of commercial aviation when Frater interviews Mr. Tata, the founder of India Airlines, or the great aunt of the Jodhpur maharajah, or in Australia, where everyone seems to know something about their legendary pilots, but otherwise his questions mostly draw blank stares. Some of what passes for ignorance might be related to the subject itself: Imperial Airways was not, despite what might be inferred, a pioneer of commercial flights. When it was created in 1924, both KLM and France’s Aéropostale had been active for five years, and the regular airmail service was only established in 1937. Many of those who speak to Frater refer Dutch pilots by name, for in those days, they were the heroes of aviation.

    The thing that really surprised me about this tour, taking place in the early eighties, is how much of the old colonial flavor could still be tasted, especially from India on. Maybe it’s because Frater was able to sojourn in some pretty amazing places such as the Jodhpur Palace, or the Eastern and Oriental in Malaysia and Raffles in Singapore where Conrad, Maugham, Kipling and others also stayed, but it was painful to read about adult Indians, Bangladeshi, Malayans, and Singaporeans working at the hotels as private valets still referred to by the author as “boys” (albeit between inverted comas). Colonial? I hear you ask – surely not? Well take a look at this passage from when the author arrives at Australia: “ I had grown unaccustomed to the sight of Europeans doing menial work” – sure, it’s worse because I took it out of context, but still, it’s pretty bad.

    The historical recollections throughout always feel contrived, as the author forces them into every stop. Maybe he should have stuck with one historical character, a pilot preferably, instead of jumping between passengers and crew. It also doesn’t help that in the journal he most quotes from the journey is being done backwards. The ending feels forced just like in Torrid Zone (there he delivers the bell to the old church accompanied by a lovely young radio reporter who shock! wins a prize with the piece); here, on his last flight, he manages to find a woman who had her maiden voyage on the exact same plane Frater flew as a child, and who his also obsessed with flying boats. Maybe I’m a cynic but it just sounds like too much of a convenient ending.
    From "The Happy Isles of Oceania" - Paul Theroux (quoted in Brad Newsham's "Take Me With You"):

    The woman known on board as The Countess...said she was a travel writer. "I am writing a story for the best and most brilliant newspaper in the world" - and she named a German daily paper. "They respect me so much that in seventeen years they have changed only one sentence of mine."

    "What was the sentence?"
    "It was very reactionary you will think," The Countess said.
    "I'll be the judge of that."
    "All right then. "Three hundred years of colonialism have done less harm to the world than thirty years of tourism."
    I smiled at her and said, "That's brilliant."

    Sunday, November 05, 2006

    A New England Autumn Wish List

    The Uses of Enchantment - Heidi Julavits

    A "black-humored tale of psychoanalysis, Yankee repression and prep school angst" according to the NY Times review. And the great cover doesn't hurt either.
    Although the Village Voice is ambiguous about the storytelling quality, i'd still like to make up my own mind.

    Lisey's Story - Stephen King

    My favourite King book, Black House, is co-authored with Peter Straub, whose work i probably prefer to King's (at least the books I've read, since they are both so prolific it's impossible to have an acurate opinion on the whole), but this one has potential...

    Thursday, November 02, 2006

    Books in hiatus

    Some of the books that I haven’t been able to finish, for one reason or other…

    Snow – Orhan Pamuk – I’m two thirds through this one, and although it’s been sitting on the shelve for more than five months I still hope to finish it

    Garbage Land – The secret trail of trash - Elizabeth Royte – about half way through, but interrupted for more than a year now so its prospects are not good, I’m afraid

    The Fortress of Solitude – Jonathan Lethem – It sounded like a good idea: NY in the 70’s cartoons, music, but something just didn’t click between me and this story

    A Sense of the World – How a blind man became history’s greatest traveler – Jason Roberts – I’ve only read forty pages and I intend to finish it. The thing is I’d been reading non-fiction almost exclusively for months and felt like a change

    Wednesday, November 01, 2006

    Saturday - Ian McEwan

    The rich are people too

    Some books seem to obligate critics to concentrate on a lot of issues other than the story at hand, and Saturday is one of them. Most reviews of Ian McEwan’s latest book seem to include an overview of his body of work, and to compare how high or low Saturday fares in comparison. Many have found it lacking. Also, because of the particular narration – the whole book is but one day seen through the eyes of one character – there have been comparisons with works of the same ilk. This is where my lack of canonical reading might serve us all. I’ve only ever read another book by McEwan: Black Dogs. That was more than ten years ago, and while I can’t remember what exactly it was about, I do remember being utterly repulsed by it. In fact, I’ve only undertaken to borrow Saturday from my sister, because she assured me I would hate it. But I didn’t. Ah!

    On the other hand I’ve finished it a week ago and I still don’t know quite what to make of it. Because of the setting – the Saturday is the 15th of February of 2003 - throughout the day, the largest anti-war demonstration in London is never far from sight (or when it is, it is followed by TV or radio) or the narrator’s mind – the reader is lead to believe that there is some underlying message about 9/11, the subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and Britain’s role as U.S.A’s ally.

    But if there’s one theme in Saturday, it is the misplacement of modern fear – how we collectively can’t shake the terror of going up in flames in some kind of terrorist attack – and yet, we are most vulnerable to everyday dangers, the kind that might blindside you on a casual weekend, as it happens here. Henry Perowne, the narrator, is a character whom I found it difficult to empathize with and I suspect this is a feeling that might be shared with many readers: he is wealthy, lives in a privileged part of London, is a very successful neurosurgeon, happily married to a likewise successful and beautiful woman with whom he engages in apparently copious amounts of sex, and both his children are well in the way to conquering what passes for achievement today: celebrity (the girl is having a poetry book published by a renowned house, the boy about to tour NY bars with his blues band). He drives a Mercedes S500, is bored by non-medical books, and believes more good than bad will come out of invading Iraq. Henry lacks even the charm of being average, for what we have here ladies and gentlemen, is an utterly upper-class man, one whose positivism and unfailing faith in science and progress, are the obvious overripe fruits of being born in a country that was, not so long ago, the metropolis of a worldwide empire. We can be sure that Perowne is firmly anchored in that part of the western world that in Orhan Pamuk’s words is “scarcely aware of this overwhelming feeling of humiliation that is experienced by most of the world’s population”.

    Henry Perowne and his family are a bunch of privileged parasites who go to Oxford University or travel the world instead, and who spend their holidays in a chateau in France with their poet grandfather. I, for one, have wished the likes of them dead, many times. But here is the thing: after spending a whole day in Henry’s head I couldn’t wish him ill anymore, because I found out he was a caring and kind person. And it wasn’t just that the big house came through his wife’s side of the family, that he hates his father-in-law, or that he’s a bit of a coward when it comes to physical confrontation.

    I now knew he had been brought up by a single mother in a typical middle class home, that seeing his mother consumed by Alzheimer’s made him feel that strangely human mixture of feelings where you want to avoid the person who doesn’t remember you, and yet feel guilty for not making a visit they don’t even know you promised to make; that he doesn’t believe his faithfulness to his wife is remarkable, since he had never been attracted to other women; that he genuinely admires his children’s talents even though they manifest in areas far from his own profession; that he respects his co-workers and thinks of his patients as individuals. He is probably one of the few neurosurgeons who admit, even to themselves, that what they do is glorified plumbing. Even the dinner he cooks for the family reunion is humble and hearty – a fish stew.

    While we all have our weaknesses, sharing them might go a long way when it comes to not disliking someone. With Henry Perowne I can pinpoint the exact moment when I started feeling a rapprochement. It was accompanying him to the fish market, where, looking at the fish, he can’t help but recall a new research which confirms that they also feel pain, and wonder what this knowledge means to our “circle of moral sympathy”: “though he’d never drop a live lobster into boiling water, he’s prepared to order one in a restaurant. The trick as always, the key to human success and domination is to be selective in your mercies”. Though he’s a forty something male, a rich neurosurgeon, and I’m an unemployed twenty-something female, when you get right down to it we’re both hypocrites. In the end isn’t that what makes us human? Now that’s a message, McEwan.