Day 1228: The Great Railway Bazaar

Cover for The Great Railway BazaarBest of Five!
Although it was not his first published book, The Great Railway Bazaar was Paul Theroux’s first to be profitable. Written in 1975, it describes the journey he took from England through Europe and southern Asia to Japan and then back through Russia almost all the time on railroads. On the journey, he travels on some fabled railways, such as the Orient Express when it still went to Istanbul and the Trans-Siberian Express.

This isn’t a traditional travel book. For the most part, Theroux isn’t interested in describing tourist destinations. There is some description, but Theroux is mostly interested in the people he meets on the train and the glimpses of life beyond.

The book is interesting but especially for me in describing countries as they no longer are but were during my lifetime. He describes a Middle East not torn by war, as it has been since the 1980’s, an Iran ruled by the Shah, a Vietnam abandoned by Americans but still at war. He dismisses Afghanistan as a country to be avoided in future but not because of war.

His descriptions of conditions he finds are graphic, and his conversations on the train are sometimes funny. He is a keen observer of human behavior.

This book just zipped by for me, I was so interested. I was surprised to find that at that time, the Orient Express was one of the least luxurious trains he takes. It is more luxurious now, but sadly it no longer goes to Istanbul.

The Folio Society edition I have is full of beautiful photos of people traveling on trains. Unfortunately, none of them were taken by Theroux on his journey.

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Day 1205: The 1977 Club! Coming into the Country

Cover for Coming into the CountryBest of Five!
I was so impressed with John McPhee’s Annals of the Former World that when I found Coming into the Country during a trip to Powell’s, I snapped it up. Just incidentally, I found it fit into the 1977 Club.

McPhee is recognized as one of the pioneers of creative nonfiction. His Wikipedia entry, in comparing him to Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson, says he “produced a gentler, more literary style of journalism that more thoroughly incorporates techniques from fiction.”

Coming into the Country is about Alaska, as it was in the mid-1970’s. The book is divided into three parts, focusing on different visits he made there. “The Encircled River” describes a trip he took within the Arctic Circle with a group of scientists. In “What They Were Hunting For,” McPhee travels around with a state-appointed committee that has been tasked with finding a new location for the state capital and explains the political situation in Alaska at the time. It was ironic to reflect that the capital never moved. “Coming into the Country,” the longest section, is about the life, people, and politics along the Yukon River, still at the time one of the most rugged areas of the state.

1977 club logoThese reports all feature McPhee’s trademark details of person and place that make his writing so interesting. I was also pleased, in googling some information, to discover the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve website, which had photographs of some of the people and places McPhee talks about.

I found Annals of the Former World, which explored the geological formation of different parts of the United States, to be profound. Oddly, the subject of Coming into the Country seems more removed, yet McPhee makes it compelling reading.

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Day 1189: Speak, Memory

Cover for Speak, MemoryAlthough I admire Lolita, I went into Nabokov’s memoir with some trepidation. The three of his novels I read showed such a preoccupation with what he calls “nymphets”—beautiful preteen girls—that it was disturbing. It’s one thing to write a novel about a sexual predator and quite another to have the theme recur in all of your works. So, even though I knew that his partially autobiographical novel, Look at the Harlequins!, was ironically meant—that is, he depicted himself as people thought he was, not as he was, I’m wasn’t sure what to expect from Speak, Memory.

And it is unusual. Instead of narrating his life in a linear fashion, as you might expect, it instead explores themes in his life. So, there are earlier chapters listing the accomplishments of his ancestors, describing his governesses and tutors, later ones about his obsession with butterfly collecting, his efforts to write his first poem, and so on. The result is an odd dichotomy—for we still understand little of the day-to-day of his life while gleaning lots of details about the things he loved best and a vague understanding of the larger arc. I think he truly doesn’t want to tell much that is personal.

I most enjoyed the earlier chapters about life on his family estate outside St. Petersburg. His life there is depicted as idyllic, and it’s hard to know if it actually was or if it is in memory because he can’t return to it. Because of course his wealthy, elite family had to flee Russia after the Russian revolution.

As in Look at the Harlequins!,  he tells nothing about his wife, Véra, although he addresses her directly at times. He does tell about his feeling for his son and about the parks in Europe they visited when his son was small.

So, I found large portions of this book interesting and beautifully written. The man has the largest vocabulary of any writer I’ve ever encountered. Other chapters, like the one about the butterflies, where I would have had to look up every other word to understand it, or the one about chess puzzles, were not so compelling. Still, I started another book before this one and set it aside to finish this. Such is the power of a great writer even when you’re not always interested in the subject matter.

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Day 1180: Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes

Cover for Travels with a DonkeyMary Stewart’s My Brother Michael is the first place I heard of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey. It is a short travelogue of a journey Stevenson took in 1878 in the remote Cévennes area of southern France with only a donkey for company.

This book is full of descriptions of the people and scenery and relates with some humor the author’s struggles with Modestine, the donkey. It also tells some of the legends and history of the area, which was the site of a religious revolt by the Camisards, a sect of the Huguenots, in the 17th century.

Although this history is interesting, for my tastes Stevenson spent too much time discussing religion, particularly as he asserts at one point in the book that he does not believe in God. Yet, he makes comments that sound like he does believe. He has several discussions about religion with people he meets on the trip, and he muses on the subject.

It seems natural to compare this work with that of Patrick Leigh Fermor, particularly the trip he made as a youngster through Europe. But Fermor’s work is at once more sparkling, witty, and erudite, although the type of content is the same. I felt that this book was only of moderate interest.

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Day 1162: Classics Club Spin! Letters from Egypt

Cover for Letters from EgyptLetters from Egypt is the book I drew for the latest Classics Club spin! A book like this one is hard for me to evaluate. Lucie Duff Gordon was an English gentlewoman suffering from consumption who spent the last seven years of her life in Egypt, hoping the climate would help her. The book of her letters is heralded as a first to deal with the Egyptian people rather than the scenery and monuments. She was by all accounts beloved by the people she lived among in Luxor from 1862 to 1869.

I try to judge books as best I can by the standards of their own time, but sometimes with this book that was a struggle for me. Duff Gordon is known for being kind to the people she met, particularly the Arab fellaheen, who by all accounts were the despised of Egypt. Certainly, she was loved by them and is careful to follow their customs, but she does patronize them in just about every word of her letters. She also takes pleasure in telling stories about how much they love her and what courtesies they exchanged. She adopts their customs and learns to speak Arabic, all very laudable. However, it seems to me that she takes their part to the point of perversity, for example, sprinkling Arabic words into her letters to friends and so participating in their customs that she speaks casually of such things as buying slaves (for herself), always for their own good, thirty years after England outlawed slavery. Further, she favors the Arabs by putting down other groups, like the Copts, the Jews (even though she meets hardly any), and some of the Turks but not all, even though the Turks would seem to be to blame for the dire state of the country.

If you are feeling politically correct, you may not appreciate her frequent use of the N word, and her constant mention of the color of the various people she meets, although that is clearly a difference in the standards of the time.

The book does have descriptions of various ceremonies and customs, which are interesting. And Duff Gordon’s behavior toward the people was clearly better than that of most “Franks.” Another slight issue is that she tends to use Arabic and Egyptian words without always explaining what they mean, which can be confusing.

I want to compare this book to West with the Night, which was written 90 years later. Beryl Markham was raised with Masai playmates in what was British East Africa. Never does she treat her native friends condescendingly. Not only that, but her book provides a better sense of the landscape and society of Africa, although admittedly more oriented toward the European. Another contrast is Tales from the Queen of the Desert, in which Gertrude Bell ventures into even more remote corners of the Arab world while not once patronizing anyone.

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Day 1140: Diaries 1907-1914: Prodigious Youth

Cover for Diaries 1907-1914I am not really a diary reader. Even Samuel Pepys was boring to me. So, when my good friend recommended Sergey Prokofiev’s diairies, I wasn’t buying it. As a historian, she finds diaries a lot more enthralling than I do. In any case, she bought me the book, a whopping 800 pages long, and I made a serious attempt to read it.

Let me first say that if you enjoy reading diaries, you will probably enjoy this book a lot more than I did. Prokofiev was a prolific diarist, as is obvious when you consider that this volume only covers seven years. He also wrote very well. But in 1907, he is only sixteen years old. Although he is a prodigy in music and extremely intelligent, he is a teenager. His diaries are concerned with his triumphs in school, music, and chess; his preferences for his female schoolmates, which change daily; and his verbal scoring against his friends and instructors. All of his enthusiasms center around how well he did, how much better than others. He comes off as a competitive little jerk at worst (I wanted to use a different word) and an immature boy at best.

Half of the book covers 1913, which should be a momentous year because of Russia’s slide toward war, but I only made it to 1909. This is probably a great book for someone else, and maybe I’ll try it again later. I would have skipped a few years, but he constantly mentions people, and I was sure I wouldn’t know who half of them were if I skipped ahead.

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Day 1127: Merry Hall

Cover for Merry HallMerry Hall is a delightful book that I never would have heard of had I not participated in the 1951 Club. The organizers are going to pick a year in the 1960’s for the next club, so if you’re interested, keep an eye on their blogs.

Shortly after World War II, journalist Beverley Nichols decided he must have a garden. Merry Hall is the story of his search for a property and his decision to buy a somewhat decrepit Georgian manor house. But it is more particularly about everything related to the garden.

Nichols’s descriptions of flowers and trees are lyrical and his stories charming and funny. After viewing the disarray of the ornamental gardens at the manor, he is stunned by the order and beauty of the kitchen garden but has difficulty interesting the gardener, Mr. Oldfield, in the creation of a new ornamental garden. He has to fight the ghost of Mr. Stebbing, the previous owner, who has execrable taste, every time he wants to change something. His neighbor, Miss Emily, thinks Mr. Stebbing had wonderful taste and flinches every time she notices something Nichols has changed. She also makes frequent demands for Nichols’s vegetables, even requesting him, on no acquaintance at all, to drive them to her house as if he were a grocer.

Where taste is concerned, Nichols also has his battles with Our Rose, famous for her “creative” floral displays, which Nichols abhors. Other amusing characters dot the pages of the memoir, in particular, his friend Marius, who is so erudite that Nichols rarely knows what he’s talking about.

In between Nichols’s amusing stories of his friends and his cats, “One” and “Four,” is the heart of the book—Nichols’s love for growing things, color, and beauty, eloquently expressed. Here he is after a section about his water garden:

There had been times when one wondered if it was really worthwhile. All this was forgotten now; I had my reward in that silver thread of water, sparkling in the moonlight.

For you see, it really is a magic water. How otherwise could you describe it? Is it not the essence of all gardens’ sweetness? There is the dew of white violets in it, and the raindrops from their dark green leaves. There is the juice of apples in it and the savour of all the pears and plums that fell into the long grass in September, and were forgotten and grew as brown as the earth with which they mingled. There is the scent of snow in it—for snow, as you should be aware, has a distinct scent, and so for that matter, has the North wind. And there is the tang of ice . . . the ice that laid out its little mirrors of glass all through the orchard in the clear days of January, so that the sky might lean close and see its face.

I am not at all a gardener, although I hope to become a sort of one now that I live in the country, but Nichols’s descriptions had me googling flower names like mad. This is a lovely, lovely book, and I am so happy to have read it.

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