Books etc.


I recently caught a TV screening of the new(ish) version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and it reminded me forcefully of the power of the word. It also drove home a point that I make constantly as a historian, namely that the context in which a book is read and the state of mind of a reader goes a long way toward what one will take out of a reading, or remember. For instance, There was a description in Gatsby toward the end, which I had missed or rather not noticed particulary when I read the book, but given all that I’ve been through in the past couple of years jumped out almost immediately this time. It was a description of Tom and Daisy Buchanan and it went like this:

They were careless people, Tom and Daisy— they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made….

Replace careless with callous and to me that passage sums up  a couple of former colleagues (or for that matter the entire institution) as nothing else can. For I know first hand what it is to be subject to the “smashing up” described by F. S. F. Nearly two years later, I’m still picking up, or attempting to pick up, the pieces while those callous Tom and Daisy equivalents go on blithely with their lives, wrecking still others, no doubt. I could go on, I suppose and wallow further in dregs of bitterness (to pick up the words of another American classic: “I am big, I contain multitudes”) but I think I’ve already given them more rent-free space in my blog and brain than I should have.

The following is an expansion of a book review I wrote for Amazon and I thought it apt for this blog, which has been untouched for many a month (or is that years?) now. The book in question is John Berendt’s The City of Falling Angels about Venice. (I’ve indented the part from the Amazon review and then reverted to my own ramblings):

Two may be a small sample size to make a fair generalization but I sense a pattern to Berendt’s books. First, find a city with character, whether by accident or design. In very different ways and for vastly different reasons Savannah, GA and Venice both certainly fit that first requirement. Any place with character has its fair share of characters (of the human variety) and so, the second thing to do then, is to find them, talk to them and get to know their stories. For Berendt, a career writer and editor, that would be second nature. Finally, loosely weave the personalities and stories you find around some central event that is/was important to the city. In Savannah it was a murder and its aftermath. In Venice it was a murder (maybe?) of a different sort. Fire – negligence or arson the jury is still sort of out – was the form this murder took and the victim was La Fenice, Venice’s opera house. Voila! you have an interesting mosaic of vignettes and profiles that makes for a charming & quirky book.

Berendt pulled it off both times, I think. I have visited both cities more than once, but in both cases before reading his books about them. I think I would enjoy going back with his book in hand (disguised in my Kindle no one need ever know!) and scope out some of the locations he’s mentioned. Then maybe one day I can write a following-in-his-footsteps sort of book.

Interestingly – and here I take off on a Berendt-esque tangent – one factoid the author didn’t mention in his book or if he did I missed it, was the metaphoric significance of La Fenice’s name. Fenice is Italian (unlike Venice which isn’t but is rather the Anglicization of Venezia)… but I digress again. Fenice means phoenix, that legendary bird which dies by fire and is reborn time and again from its own ashes – and how apropos is that for this opera house which has been resurrected from it ashes more than once in its history?

Another thing Berendt failed to mention is Venice’s title of La Serenisima, something I picked up from my avid reading of Donna Leon’s Brunetti books. Leon is another absentee despite the fact that the book is chock full of expat personalities (maybe Leon is not enough of of personality as she too busy creating others for paper).  But these are minor quibbles about an otherwise immensely enjoyable read. It’s also a read that has inspired me to read Henry James, who is also mentioned frequently by Leon as the protagonist’s wife’s hero. And Berendt mentioned one of James’ shorter works, The Aspern Papers which apparently bears some uncanny parallels to the real life story of Ezra Pound’s papers and his lifelong love-not wife-Olga.

As to my my own literary aspirations? What city would I pick if I had to write a Berendt-style profile? Well Cairo obviously comes to mind with its glorious character and accompanying caste of characters, many of whom I am delighted to call my friends. But then again that’s the very reason I couldn’t write this book because pinning them down in print as it were might be such an awful invasion of their privacy. But yet, Cairo is the place, as I described to a non-Cairene friend of mine, where the people i knew and sat and enjoyed coffee or other libations with, are literally characters you would read about in books! Only they’re real. Salima, John Swanson and Hoath come to mind immediately from those near and dear to me, but also a few others who are larger than life and twice as natural, personality wise. And then there are those to whom I have positive antipathy – in code now so as to avoid slander charges, but friends in the know will be able to guess – include the ubiquitous A (a.k.a. Big Ears), the slimy dead-ringer for KFC’s Colonel Sanders and how can I forget the equally slimy wannabe-bitten Meatloaf wannabe? But ‘nuf said…

So, having steps one and two of the Berendt formula, what of the third? Some central event around which to build the book. Well for most people that would be the no brainer right? After all, I lived in Cairo right through the Tahrir-square demonstrations (and still have an unfinished “revolutionary diary” post that may yet see the light of day!) But here’s the thing about that. The revolution (for lack of a better word) is still ongoing and is a serious story, not one for amusing and whimsical vignettes, though Cairo is a source of the latter in spades! Also given my laxity over this and other blogs, is it ever likely that I’ll get a non-work related book to a publisher? Fat chance! Meanwhile though here’s a snapshot that distills the essence of that Cairo for me:

One year after the resignation of Mubarak I went back to Cairo for a short visit. For part of the time I was staying at the the apartment of my dearest friends there, right downtown on Sherif Street. One of his balconies overlooks the Ministry of the Interior, where one could see tear gas and men in uniform lined up with shields to protect the place from (justifiably) angry mobs. Looking out the wall of windows on the other side (90 degrees from the to give a sense of orientation) one sees a part of the city with pedestrian alleys lines with tables where local men and tourists used to stop for aahwah (coffee) and shisha. Well, but for the tourists the place was still the same! regular still sat around table smoking shishas and sipping coffee like the world wasn’t falling apart just a few corner away!

(I put crumbling rather than falling there first, but then realized, crumbling facades are very much a part of Cairo’s natural landscape and thus nothing for the shisha smokers to think much less worry about). So there it is, the heart of what makes Cairo live up to her name of El Kaahira, The Undefeated. No matter how much things change, there is a core to her that will endure, much like her pyramids!

Have to admit it! Yesterday was the first day since my arrival here that I’ve felt the restoration of some sense of balance in my life since leaving Cairo. In a truly nerdy fashion it took the first day of school and the meeting of my new students to get the ball really rolling on the process.  This is not to say that my new colleagues have been anything but incredibly helpful and very friendly, but I guess I’ve been on a determinedly miserable and melancholy mindset… missing my Cairene life fiercely and going to bed having imaginary, one-sided conversations in my head with my friends there (and some real ones too thanks to Skype). Then there have been the pangs of anxiety about adjusting to various aspects of life and bureaucracy in Korea.

All told I was on slump in terms of mood, but the first impression I got from students here is that the move was certainly career-wise, so to speak. Students, at least at the outset seem engaged, even pleased to be taking these courses (History of Science [yeah finally!] and a writing tutorial and many in the latter seemed genuinely enthused about the theme. This time it is about voyages and discovery (not food), chosen because it to resonate with my recent past.

The course itself more akin to the freshman writing classes I taught at Eau Claire than to the research writing experience at AUC, but I seem to have a better handle on it, having taught the upper level course, and also learned some do-s and don’t-s in teaching writing. I do have a common book project, which I plan to integrate in with other exercises. Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, seemed ideal encompassing as it does both a trip of the length and breadth of USA, and personal journey as well. He also does well on the descriptive front. The book exposes the kids to a world class writer but is short enough to be manageable. Another piece I’m thrilled to be using a newsletter article on travel narratives called “A sense of place,” by Richard Hoath. (In true British style, he said he was “chuffed” about my using it!). I daresay my enthusiasm will wane as the semester progresses and things get chaotic as they’re bound to and oh yes, the 40 km commute (from new campus) entailing a bus from there at 7:40 and hence leaving home around 7 twice a week at least, will get old real fast. But those are par for the course, and in that respect at least I ought to feel right at home!

I have just finished reading my third book (fourth if you count my having seen the movies The Remains of the Day) by Kazuo Ishiguro, and emerge from the experience bewildered, and yet bedazzled and unable to put the whole experience out of my mind. It also got me remembering my past experiences and got me thinking and needing to write.

I have often told my students that the death knell for a writer is indifference and being ignored. It’s far worse than the ability to inflame, incense, infuriate and other in-terms of the negative nature. (This brings up a troubling moment of self-reflection and criticism about my previous post but having written it I’ll stand by it). Anyway, it’s true of my reaction to Ishiguro – I have come out of his books feeling like I’ve run an unsatisfying race or trekked up a particularly arduous trail and not entirely certain of what I’ve gotten from the experience. Certainly not simple enjoyment…nothing about his books are simple. Nor have they been uplifting (with the exception of some of the stories in Nocturnes, the one book I have unequivocally loved).  But there is something about every one of them that is compelling and in case of the book I read today, Never Let Me Go, haunting and troubling. And I cannot let it go …

Not emotionally in any event. I remember feeling the same way about When We Were Orphans – which I heard as an audio-book – even if I found so many elements puzzling, even downright bizarre. But that is the peculiar power of Ishiguro’s writing I think. Even when it’s hard work, he draws you completely into the half-formed worlds of his narrators (virtually everything I’ve read by him has been in first person). His prose is spare and beautiful, like a particularly raw work of ikebana, I think, stark and knobby but demanding attention all the same.

I think I’m making a hash of this, so I’ll leave off now, I do invite comments from others if you’ve read these or his other books. One of these days, though not too soon, I’m bound to return to one of his other novels, though I’m not sure which one. I any of you have thoughts or suggestions, do bring them on…

How I wish for the reality of parts of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld at the moment. Specifically the walking trunk made of … lets see if I can get this right without reaching for my Kindle … sentient pearwood. Sorry not sentient but sapient pearwood. And it is known in the books simply as the Luggage. What a marvelous contraption Pratchett invented to be sure! Not only does trunk never get lost and is eternally loyal, it also – and here’s the part that I love – allows its owner toss in worn clothing into it only to return it to him cleaned, ironed and ready to wear when wanted. What I wouldn’t do for my own sapient pearwood trunk. Heck I’ll settle for mango, cherry, camphor, cedar .. any type of wood actually so long as it would do my ironing (and washing and drying) for me. It also eats up enemies… but at this moment I do not have the kind that need eating up. No one is that importantly evil in my life.

The reason for this wave of want for another world is the recollection that I need to head into town to pick up my ironing, for which I might add, I pay a hefty if not exorbitant sum. Just like I did in Vienna, where laundry – not just ironing but washing and drying as well – was the single largest expense of the summer exceeding my rent even. Here in Ulm it’s not so bad, washing and drying at least have been cheap and are now free, but the ironing!!! After the convenience of Cairo where it’s done at home by Charles for such a reasonable price (okay so I’m an awful sold-out-to colonialist-values type of person) this expense really bites. But I can’t be buying an iron for just a few weeks!!! And the problem is I can’t wear my clothes in their line-dried form (too crumpled) and it’s really too warm to wear anything but cotton right now. So I’m paying the piper, if not of Hamlin then of Ulm. Tchuss! Bis spater mit mehr complaints. 😉

I was a late-comer to the world of J.R.R. Tolkien, past my teens (but not yet the tweens) and already on my own in Edmonton by the time I was introduced to The Hobbit, followed shortly by The Lord of the Rings. It wasn’t the first time I’d read fantasy since the Narnia chronicles had been read and digested in my early teens and indeed by the time I was reading The Hobbit I had already stopped liking them as much. Too Christian, to be perfectly frank, and almost racist they seemed to my revisionist self (nowadays I’ve struck a medium and do recognize them for their great story telling – but I can do without the subtext) but in a climate that seemed to make fun of me for liking to read, I was only too glad to be introduced to a new world that someone else seemed to be in love with. How we got into the conversation about anything I cannot remember being in the large common lab in the microbiology department, which dates my reading to the spring/summer of 1988, where Sven waxed rhapsodic about these books. And so even though he and I never really became friends (he left for bigger and better things even as I settled down to a Masters) and I can’t even remember his last name, I owe him an eternal debt of gratitude.

The reason for this sudden  rekindling of interest  is a book of essays on Tolkien that I have been reading for the past couple of days. The book, called Meditations on Middle Earth is a collection of essays by various authors of the genre today compiled by a Karen Haber whose work I am not familiar with. But when the table of contents revealed that Terry Pratchett, to my mind easily the most intelligent writer of fantasy fiction today, not to mention really funny as well, I hit the one-click purchase button (dangerous tool that!).

Pratchett mentions his first experience reading the books, a 23-hour readathon during which time he surfaced not at all. I too can remember something similar, foregoing sleep, or making appearances in the department .. everything in fact except meals, while I devoured the entire book (I like some of the other essays refuse to call it a trilogy for its NOT. There is and can be only one Trilogy and that is Asimov’s classic Foundation trio – the original three only) and ended with a whole posse of new friends that I revisit periodically in shorter or longer spurts. I only have to pick up a copy and flip through a few pages and it pulls me under again. No other book until then or since has done that with such completeness at Lord of the Rings.

The essays themselves are a mixed bag, the afore-mentioned Pratchett’s offering stellar as expected, and a few others  simply ho-hum. Orson Scott Card, whose stuff I have read and have found intriguing, has received particularly miserable feedback from the readers, and I am hesitant to read it. The one that resonates with my own experience was one called “A Bar and a Quest,” by Robin Hobb – more than resonate, in fact, I feel as if I were reading something I wrote some other time: “opened to any page, the words still have the power to draw me in, pull me under, and ultimately to take me home.” (Note identical phrasing to my own in the earlier paragraph – not plagiarism I assure you). Or the fact that she’s lost track of the number of times she’s reread them over the years or bought and gifted copies to friends and favorites over the years.

Its gratifying to share this experience with this particular author, because her novels and the world of the six duchies and beyond, have had a similar pull on my attention. I began with her earliest trilogy (only somewhat misnamed ) the Farseer trilogy – called Assassin’s Apprentice and found myself unable to put it down. I didn’t cut classes or anything but was deep into them, reading them throughout my holiday in Istanbul for instance. Her books have a depth often lacking in other offerings in this genre and while definitely not feel-good they do pull you (well me at any rate) in and under for hours. I’ve not read all her books but I do like the worlds-within-the world she’s created with some unusual critters and relationships. I won’t say “not since Tolkien” but she is one of the more enduring authors I have encountered in the world of fantasy for a time.

George Martin (another contributor to the Middle earth volume) was getting there, but he’s dragged out his Fire and Ice series too far and left me waiting and hanging for far too long wondering about the fates of Jon, Aria and the others and I’m irritated. J.K. Rowling was a nice combination of my past – at first rolling together as it were, Enid Blyton and Tolkien in Harry Potter’s world. Not nearly as much depth as Hobb but still very engaging. The series of seven was uneven, my favorites in the series being The Prisoner of Azkaban and the last one because she ended it satisfyingly.Terry Brooks’ Shannara was too close an imitation of Tolkein’s world but entertaining for all that and I will say his magic Kingdom books were good fun, and I also have to mention Guy Gavriel Kay who mixes in Celtic/Arthurian mythology rather nicely into his stories.

Happy travels everyone, I must be on my way and pay one of these worlds a visit

Did you know how the expression “to be at sixes and sevens” originated? Or that Dorothy Sayers put in bits and pieces of her life in her various Peter Wimsey novels? Or what a triffid is/was? And how about the crystal phallus? This and other bits of arcania – as opposed to trivia as these factoids are arcane not trivial in my opinion – and trivia are the kinds of things one finds out about if you take a London Walk.

Before I go on, a caveat. Many people and groups giving walking tours. I’ve been on some in Rome and Florence. They were not bad. A nice alternative to the cookie-cutter guided tours. BUT, now that I’ve been on some of these London-walks tours I have to say… they’re a cut (and then some) above any other walking tours I’ve been on. And so while here at least don’t settle for substitutes or imitators. Check these guys out here: http://www.walks.com/

So far I’ve been on two London walks. And if I can get my act together hope to get at least one more before I leave town. (I did I did but will tell you more on that later). The first one I went on was a Literary Bloomsbury and Old Museum Quarter Walk (well, yes, remember I’m the nerd by inclination and profession, thank you very much!) on Tuesday afternoon. It’s where I learned about Dorothy Sayers and the triffids among other things. Of course the Bloomsbury staples of Virginia Woolf et al were mentioned but they were not the star attractions. As the writeup tells you, on this walk we got to explore the “other” Bloomsbury (see a little photo essay about this trip from the walks website by clicking on my photo of our walking group).

First stop on the walk was Red Lion Square. In the days of the 17th century (think Roundheads etc) this square was the site of the Red Lion Inn, which was rendered famous, infamous or notorious in its day (depending on point of view) by serving as the venue for holding the body of Oliver Cromwell, some 3 years after his burial at Westminster Abbey when it was exhumed for the sole purpose of hanging Cromwell for treason. Sorry making that hanging and beheading. Rather a bloodthirsty lot the royalists were back then. Whether or not it was Cromwell’s body that was hanged and beheaded – rumours abound as to the identity of the body that merged from the Red Lion, someone’s certainly was, while someone else’s body apparently was buried in secret at the inn. The head was displayed on a pike outside Parliament to others inclined to regicide, until it rolled into a storm gutter from whence a Cambridge student with the desire to take a piece of London back to Cambridge, took it and buried it in a “secret” place in Sidney Sussex College, where it lies still, vaguely marked by a commemorative plaque that says that the head lies “near to this place.”

So this was the story told to us by much gusto by our guide Tom, repeated as faithfully as I can from memory. I share responsibility for any factual errors. Also around this square was a plaque dedicated to Harrison of the navigational clocks fame (if you haven’t, do read Longitude by Dava Sobel and watch the BBC series with Michael Gambon and Jeremy Irons) for he lived here long before the houses were renovated, another plaque to mark the residence of members of the Pre-Raphaelite movement and also an odd building housing the Ethical Society of which Bertrand Russell was a member. Actually there’s also supposed to be a bust of the great man in the Red Lion Square park, which Tom out of deference to him chose not to show us as it has been defaced by graffiti.

From the Red Lion we headed to Bedford Row, an important address in its time and from where are visible a lane where Dickens lived for a while and probably wrote The Pickwick Papers (which we did NOT visit) as well a parallel street where Dorothy Sayers, the first woman to attend Oxford incidentally, lived from 1921-29. Quite a lady she was, and I learned a whole lot more about her after Tom was done speaking about her, and promptly went and bought her kindle-ready novels (only one so far I’m afraid but more are on their way, I hope) after the walk. Around the corner (more or less) we stood across the street from the house (Number 18)  which Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath had lived in when they first got married. The house is featured in a poem  by Hughes, read to us in sonorous syllables by Tom (the text is in the photo essay for those interested). Across the street where we stood and gazed on #18 was London’s tiniest street, Emerald Court, and one could almost imagine Sylvia (superimposed unfortunately by Gwyneth Paltrow’s face due to that movie) dragging her bike there, as well as a French dairy shop-converted to a jewelry shop where among the pieces of artistic pieces was displayed a gem of an altogether different sort – a book of Auden’s poetry!

Onward to Russell square and all that surrounds it. In all its part-gothic and all-garish glory, the Hotel Russell waving flags etc at us, on the other corner SOAS with T.S. Eliot (the American master’s) former press site, and just behind overlooking it all, the other ghoulish structure, the tower from the University, which was featured in (and finally I get to it) The Day of the Triffids, by a John Wyndham. This sci-fi offering from the 1950s was one I knew nothing about until Tom told us about it, but since it was available in a Kindle edition, I bought it and have promptly read it. Interesting postapocalyptic vision.

So we ended at the back entrance of the British Museum, in whose Reading Room so many of the intellectuals had spent so many fruitful hours. Very apropos. With very little time to closing all I had time for was a peep at the real Rosetta Stone and after looking at it carefully, I have to reconsider John Swanson’s tale (in greater detail in a previous post) that its color (black) is actually a London Grime covering for rose (pink) granite. Particularly since other more-exposed pieces of pink granite monuments from Egypt also in the museum have retained their pink just fine! So until further evidence I’ll believe the black basalt story. Also since that would have made it easier to transport these edicts.

So I was going to summarize my second walk here too, but no can do. This post grows long and the hour late. So I’ll end with a slide show of this walk (click on photo below) and a promise to return in the not too distant future with accounts of the second walk and answer some of the questions from my teaser – about sixes and sevens and crystals body parts. Oh and now there’s a third London walk to talk about! But until I do write, I prithee, fare thee well.

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