16 June 2008

Bibliophile reviews Tim Moore’s Spanish Steps: Travels with my donkey

Year published: 2004
Genre: Non-fiction, travel
Setting & time: Spain, 21 century

The Story:
In 2002 or 3 or thereabouts, travel writer and journalist Tim Moore set out to trace the Camino de Santiago, the medieval pilgrim trail from St Jean Pied-de-Port in France to the shrine of Saint James in Santiago de Compostela in Spain, with Shinto, a pack donkey, in tow. Unable to find stabling for Shinto in St Jean, they actually stated the journey about 10 km up the road. What followed were 40 days and 750 km. of slow travelling. While some of the dangers braved by medieval pilgrims were no longer available, such as robbers, bears and wolves, the weather was still there to inconvenience them just like it did their predecessors, sometimes with blistering heat and sometimes with pouring rain, as were such age-old annoyances as snoring roommates and moochers. Then there were hardships undreamt of by the pilgrims of old, such as cars and the overpowering heat of asphalt under the sun. On the other hand, there was the fact that the next eatery or supermarket was never more than a few hours walk way, the hostels, while often primitive, had running water and electrical lights, and it would have been easy to abandon the journey at any time and be home in a few hours, a luxury the pilgrims didn’t have, so it really was impossible to experience the journey in the way the medieval pilgrims did. And Moore doesn't pretend to, which is good. He describes people, mostly other pilgrims he met upon the road, with a deft pen, sometimes kindly, sometimes mockingly, not sparing himself when he thinks he deserves it, and writes good-humouredly about his almost constant battles to get Shinto to cross bridges and to stop the donkey from following him into every building he enters.

Technique and plot:
Here is finally a book by Tim Moore that I am almost completely happy with, apart from his not knowing when to end a running joke that stopped being funny after chapter 4, if it was ever funny in the first place (if you like zoophilia jokes, it will no doubt keep you entertained for longer than it did me). I enjoyed Frost on my Moustache but thought Moore was trying too hard to imitate Bill Bryson, and I thought French Revolutions, while occasionally funny and full of interesting trivia about the Tour de France, was too whiny over all to be a really good travelogue. But Spanish Steps is neither. It is one of the best travelogues I have read in recent years, a nicely balanced blend of humour and seriousness, past history and personal growth, peppered with descriptions of landscapes, events, people and animals encountered along the way.
If you are looking for a tale of enlightenment and religious experiences, this is not that kind of book. Moore didn’t do the pilgrimage for religious reasons, and he didn’t have any religious experiences along the way, although some of his fellow travellers seem to have.

Rating: An enjoyable and honest travelogue. Recommended. 4 stars.

P.S.
Apparently his most recent book is about the people who came in last with zero points in the Eurovision Song Contest. Should be interesting.

14 June 2008

Reading report for May 2008

I was slightly over my average in May and finished 16 books, all but one that I started reading within the month, which may be a record for me. The classic of the month was one of the minor Icelandic sagas, that of Bárður snæfellsás. This particular saga reads like a myth, as the central character becomes a sort of god or godly protecting presence. That is not to say he didn't exist at one point - the story may well be based on one of the original Nordic settlers of Iceland - but it has become a hero tale that mixes fact and fiction, much like the saga of Grettir the strong.

I am abandoning The Canterbury Tales, as they have become a chore and I am not enjoying them as I should. I will try again when I am in the right mood.

Bárðar Saga Snæfellsáss
Suzanne Brockmann: Hot Target
Rita Mae Brown: Rest In Pieces; Catch As Cat Can
Carol Higgins Clark: Decked
Jennifer Crusie, Eileen Dreyer, Anne Stuart: The Unfortunate Miss Fortunes
Dara Joy: Rejar
Marian Keyes: Further Under The Duvet
Connie Lane: Reinventing Romeo
Susan Elizabeth Phillips: Nobody's Baby But Mine; First Lady
Mary Roberts Rinehart: K
Nora Roberts: A Little Fate; Jewels Of The Sun, Tears Of The Moon, Heart Of The Sea

13 June 2008

Collecting bookmarks

I have been slowly but surely accruing a collection of bookmarks over the years. Some are plain and utilitarian, several are adverts for books, publishers or bookstores, some are library marks, others are works of art. I have never really considered myself a collector of bookmarks – but being an avid reader, I grab them when and wherever I come across them, especially when they are free. The reason, of course, is that I keep losing them, usually inside books. Still, I have managed not to lose some of them and I estimate that I have maybe around 40, tucked away inside books and in my bookmarks holder.

A couple of years ago I got the idea of buying souvenir bookmarks when I travel, and the first ones I got are some lovely ones with panoramic photos of American national parks I visited last spring. This, however, is the farthest I have taken bookmark collecting. Perhaps it’s because I do not want to end up like my grandmother, whose postcard collection has taken over her larder and numbers somewhere high in the five digit range, but the main reason is that I would rather have room for more books. However, postcard collecting is a serious hobby for some:

This guy's collection made it into the Guinness Book of Records:
Frank Divendal. All I can say is WOW!

I found the article on Divendal on a website dedicated to bookmarks: Mirage bookmark


And here are some Flickr groups dedicated to showcasing bookmarks:

Bookmarks

Vintage Bookmarks

Advertising Bookmarks

Amazing Bookmarks

12 June 2008

Have you read all those books?

Do you hear this on a regular basis? Does it annoy you or do you answer with a smile?

I dread the day when my (rapidly growing) reference library starts drawing this question. I think that to ask someone whose library is a work tool (such as a teacher, lawyer or writer or indeed a translator like myself) this question shows both ignorance and bad manners. I’m sure mechanics or dentists don’t often get asked if they really use all their tools, but display a wall of bookcases full of reference books and sooner or later someone will in all earnestness ask you if you have really read them all. I mean, come on, how many people do you know who have read the entire Oxford English Dictionary?

As for book collections meant mainly for pleasure reading, what the people who ask this question don’t realise is that for someone whose main hobby is reading, the point of having many books is not that you have read them all and are now proudly displaying your accomplishment, but that you don’t ever want to run out of something to read. This I smilingly explain to those who ask. After all, they are probably expressing admiration or wonder rather than disapproval (I hope).

--

P.S. How can you tell you have too many books?

A possible answer: When you can no longer open the refrigerator or use the toilet because of the books stacked in front of them, and you live in constant fear of bookslides.

Honest answer: A true bibliophile can never have too many books.

10 June 2008

Books I have bought lately

May was an amazing book-buying month for me. I usually don‘t buy this many books in a month (or even 6 months), but I have reaped an unusually abundant crop of interesting second-hand books, most of them mysteries. I even bought one new book and got given one.

Missing are The Best American Travel Writing 2005 and A Cold Coffin by Gwendoline Butler, because I couldn‘t find them.


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03 June 2008

The book that made me feel dirty

I have read any number of books that made me salivate because of delectable descriptions of food or made me cry because they touched me. Books have made me angry, happy, sad and disgusted, and even a little horny, but the only book that has ever made me feel dirty was Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon, a nasty, sour little collection of photographs and scandal stories featuring actors and other famous Hollywood personalities. I bought it (second hand) out of curiosity, having read an article in a newspaper about the Fatty Arbuckle trial that referenced it. I read the whole thing in 2 sittings and emerged from it with an itchy, prickly feeling in my skin like I had been rolling in something nasty that had left a crust, and my stomach feeling like I had been eating something that wasn’t good for me. Unfortunately a shower does little to alleviate this kind of dirty feeling. What I needed was a psychological cleansing, but the shower did clear my head and make be feel a little better.

At the time I couldn’t understand why I didn’t just stop reading it when the feeling started, but now I have come to the conclusion that while undeniably icky, it is also the best example of a page-turner that I have ever come across. It is hard to put it down because you can’t believe what your eyes are seeing and reading, and morbid curiosity draws you onwards as you read about the sad and often horrible fates of famous Hollywood personages: their sexual escapades, accidents they were involved in, crimes they committed or were committed against them, and their sometimes miserable and horrible deaths. What made me sick was not so much reading about these things or even the often explicit photographs of dead celebrities, but the cynicism and sensationalistic tone and the schadenfreude and total lack of sympathy of the author for his subjects. I cold almost hear him sniggering as I read some particularly lurid allegation or looked at any of the numerous photographs of the famous looking less than glamorous, meant to show their moral turpitude but really just showing them as being human after all.

It has been proved that a number of the stories told in the book are partially or wholly inaccurate and there is much speculating by the author that doesn’t hold up to even the most basic standards of reporting. It has also been alleged that some of the photographs in the book are not of the people he purports they show, and that some photos have been doctored to make them look more shocking, particularly some apparently pantyless shots of actresses, although that may have been in book 2 (I no longer have the book to refer to). Subsequent editions – I don’t think the book has been out of print since its original publication in 1959 – have not corrected the inaccuracies, so it should be taken with many grains of salt.

If you like lurid and sensational accounts of famous people and their “scandalous” behaviour and you don't care about the truth, this is a must read, but if you want historical accuracy and objectivity, look elsewhere.