Books etc.

My alliterative self has not been just dampened by dengue but also down-trodden, depressed, debilitated, and just downright doggone defeated (well not quite) by it. Certainly it threw me off my weekly post goal (or is that goal-post) on this blog which was lagging by a few weeks already but (I fondly hoped) almost on track to getting caught up.  And then came the horrible virus and drained my energies and flattened my resolve. Just for my personal record, this should have been my tenth entry, given I made the the once-a-week resolution on the 10th of June, but is only my 7th. I wonder if or when I will catch up.

Anyway.. inspired by blog lists on other sites, I thought I’d take the opportunity to pay tribute to a few books that have helped or are helping sustain me through the duel with dengue and with a few other challenges. Unlike earlier periods of illness and convalescence when I would read voraciously, this illness left me with a headache that made reading impossible. Luckily my trusty collection has helped and in reverse order here are some books that I’ve really enjoyed listening to over the past several months–not the the dengue weeks, but also the driving ones in Wisconsin/Minnesota and in California. In reverse order (most recent backward)

1. In an Antique Land by Amitav Ghosh. This book, which is still in progress actually, has been long overdue. I remember beginning to read it and being excited by its premise years ago (as I recall it was Aziza Ellozy who lent me a copy) but as I’ve been listening to it, I am realizing that I had barely made a dent into the book at the time. Am not sure who the narrator is — he is pleasing enough — but the book itself, what a treat! Ghosh’s shifting back and forth between the 12th century world of trade between Mangalore, Aden (in Yemen) and Cairo’s Geniza and the modern (1980s) Egyptian Delta is a pleasing device at least to my ears, but what really endears this book to me is the way it brings aspects of my own new millennial life in Cairo (2007-2011) back in such vivid detail and color. The nostalgia it conjures up is actually a false one for the descriptions of the life, speech and attitudes of the Egyptians in his book are in truth a very different slice of society than what I experienced. But nevertheless his narrative (aided and abetted by the skillful narrator) brings these people alive: I can see the guy, his grey galabeya flapping in the breeze and cigarette dangling from fingers or mouth, and hear him expounding on some aspect of life. Ghosh being a man was likely not exposed as I was to the numerous propositions from taxi drivers et al, that I and my female colleagues were privileged to receive, but something about the words ring so true… which I think is the mark of great writing. It transcends time and space.

2. As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of the Princess Bride, by Cary Elwes. This was a random buy–I think I was actually looking for a version of the original book itself–but one of those lucky strikes. In a day an age where I think Robin Wright has become defined by her “role of a lifetime” as the ruthless Claire Underwood, it was fun to learn about her in the days she was Buttercup, the most beautiful princess in all the lands, imperiously ordering the farmboy (the author and narrator) about. Elwes is a great narrator and mimic and while this book might seem a bit of a sentimental tribute–it is–it does bring back memories of a great film that I really love! I had a lot of fun storming the castle with Elwes and crew, learning about the figures behind the ROUS’s, and of course the famous Inigo Montoya (of the “you killed my father prepare to die” fame) and about others such as André the kindly Giant among others. Now to buy and rewatch the film itself.

3. Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch, an absolute delight of an irreverent romp by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. I’ll be eternally grateful to my cousin Pramodh for this recommendation… and can’t think of the number of times I’d take the long way to somewhere just to get to listen to a bit more of the book. It certainly helped me stave off some of the darkest days of depression. Enough said–read it and enjoy impending Armageddon as you never will again for sadly Pratchett is no more, having died in 2015, suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. He was only 66. A side benefit of reading this book was I got better acquainted with Queen, and not just the Bohemian Rhapsody.

4. The Poets’ Corner: The One-and-Only Poetry Book for the Whole Family. This last one does not qualify as a book but was/is great and does not get erased from my audio device (presently my iPhone 4S)… Ever! John Lithgow compiled this collection and got a bunch of friends (stellar actors all) to read poems by a large list of his own favorites. He provides his own commentary and associations for each poet. You’ll get to listen to old favorites or learn about new men and women you didn’t know you might like. Auden and Yeats, Wordsworth and the impenetrable (to me) Gertrude Stein.. they and about fifty others are all in there. This one is definitely worth several listens.


I recently read The Woman on the Orient Express a fictional account of a snippet (well actually a grand chunk) of Agatha Christie’s life. I thought it a nice blend of the real facts and Christie’s fiction–especially the subtle ways in which scenes and characters from various books wound their way into the story, the latter interesting touted as the inspiration for her plots when in fact the reverse is truer. I always give points to a book when it makes me want to read new ones or revisit old favorites and this book certainly did that. I really thought some of the real characters that Lindsay Jayne Ashford brought into the book resembled certain characters in some of Christie’s novels.

What really drove me to write about this book here (as it happens for I reviewed it already on Amazon) was a chance to marvel anew at the really small world this is. For never in a million years did I think that the I could claim anything less than six degrees of separation with an author who had died before I had started reading her books! (at least I don’t think I had read any of her books before I turned eleven…) Here’s how that unfolds: My dear friend Emmanuelle Salgues is an Assyriologist–which means she can read Gilgamesh in it’s original chicken scratch script but that’s another story– and her PhD advisor was a student of Max Mallowan, who was Agatha Christie’s second husband. I think that officially connects me to Agatha Christie through 4  (3?) degrees. Cool bragging right isn’t it? And guess what, now that you’ve read this post, you too will be able to claim the same (if you know Emmanuelle) or 5 by dint of knowing me who knows E, etc etc.  So my fellow nerds.. enjoy..  (#49).

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. 😉

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