20 September 2012

What's in a Name challenge review: The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, by Elizabeth Tova Bailey

No sooner hand I finished the previous review when I picked up the next book in the challenge and read it through in a single sitting. It was that fascinating and that good.

This is my fifth and second-to-last book of the challenge, the creepy crawly (a snail), and the only one so far that has not been on my TBR list. Just to be clear, the TBR books are the ones I have owned for over a year. 

The reason I didn't choose a TBR book for this category was simple: I only have one unread book about creepy-crawlies that fits the plus-one-year rule, and it's a reference book as thick as a telephone directory that I have no intention of reading from cover to cover. 

The author was struck by a mysterious illness while on holiday in Europe and the outcome was a debilitating condition that made her an invalid. Stuck in a cycle of slight recoveries and violent relapses, she was bound to her bed when a friend brought her a pot of wild violets and a forest snail. She began observing the snail and noting its behaviour and drawing parallels between her own condition and that of the snail, sometimes wishing she was a snail.

The book is a beautifully written observation, not only of the snail, but of the human condition and the author's situation as someone who was (and presumably still is) unable to enjoy full mobility, showing how a small thing like a snail could make her forget her own condition for a while and become totally invested in something else. It also contains much information about snails, along with a number of interesting quotations relating to snails, and a juicy bibliography at the back that should satisfy even the most avid amateur malacologist.

Highly recommended. 5+ stars.

19 September 2012

What's in a Name challenge review: The Darling Buds of May by H.E. Bates

My fourth What's in a Name challenge book was this delightful short novel, the first in a series of (I think) 5 books that have also been used as the basis for a television series. The challenge category is # 6, the something you'd find on a calendar, that of course being the month of May.

Cedric Carlton, a clerk from the Internal Revenue office arrives at the Larkin family farm to find out why Pa Larkin hasn't filed his taxes. He meets the Larkins' oldest daughter, Mariette, and falls in love with her at first sight, which comes in useful for Pa, who clearly has no intention to pay his taxes and uses Cedric's infatuation with Mariette to dodge all questions about the matter. Cedric, renamed Charley by Pa, quickly forgets why he came and takes sick leave in order to stay with the family and be near Mariette, who seems quite interested in him too.

This is one of those lovely novels in which a formula as old as literature is used to good effect to tell an entertaining, occasionally funny and heart-warming story. The characters are more or less stock, to be sure, but they are fleshed out sufficiently to give them enough dimension to function well in this plot-driven novel about two different worlds colliding with interesting results. 4 stars.

P.S. Check out the TV series, starring, among others, Catherine Zeta Jones.

17 September 2012

What's in a Name challenge review: The Marsh Arabs by Wilfred Thesiger

This is the third What's in a Name challenge book I finish, the topographical feature, that of course being a marsh. This means I am halfway there, and one more TBR book down.

The Marsh Arabs is a travelogue that, along with another travelogue by the same author, Arabian Sands, often appears on lists of best travel books and classics of the genre. It's easy to see why. The style is straightforward and no-nonsense, yet never dry or boring and it was refreshing for a change to read a travelogue by someone who knew exactly who he was and what he was doing, rather than the more common "searching for meaning and/or identity" travelogue so common today.

In 1951 to 58 Wilfred Thesiger spent several months of each year in the marshes of southern Iraq, getting to know the inhabitants, their way of life and customs. He seems to have travelled to this particular area in search of people who were not yet too modernised to have lost all connection with their past and the land, and like most of the best travel writers he seems to have made his expeditions there solely for his own enjoyment.

He describes his life with and travels among the Maʻdān people, the Marsh Arabs of the title, and intersperses his account with information about their day-to-day lives, what they ate, how they built their houses and made their boats, their social structure, marriage traditions and burial customs and last, but not least, blood feuds that would have made the Vikings proud. He shows he had respect for the marsh-dwellers but expresses regret and disdain for the educated among them who he thought had been made discontented with their lot by teachers who couldn't understand why anyone would want to live in the marshes. In this, he shows an attitude reminiscent of the ideal of the 'noble savage', whereby the observer desires to keep the idealised people frozen in time whether they want to nor not. In his case, he knew he was observing a disappearing way of life which he deplored but could do nothing about. The best he was able to do was to record what he saw for posterity.
Despite the obviously Victorian attitudes of the author, I am still giving it 4 stars.

This is one of those books that, when they end, has one wondering what happened next. I do know that Saddam Hussein later came along and drained the marshes, reducing them to a tenth of their original size and scattering most of the Maʻdān, with all the evils that the sudden uprooting of a traditional culture can have. At least the people Thesiger observed leaving the marshes in the fifties were doing it of their own free will.

Now I think I'll need to get my hands on Gavin Young's Return to the Marshes (1977) and then Rory Stewart's Prince of the Marshes (2006), to see what has changed.

15 September 2012

Reading report for August 2012

It suddenly occurred to me that I had yet to post a reading report for last month. 

I finished 12 books in August, out of which one was a reread. It was a mixed bag this time: autobiography, travel, popular science, romance, urban fantasy, mystery and suspense. Some of my favourite genres, in fact.

The TBR challenge is inching along, with 3 books in August, and I got going again with the Brother Cadfael mysteries, reading three of them back to back. I finally got hold of the final book I needed to complete the series and now there is nothing holding me back from finally finishing it.

The Books:
Alison Arngrim: Confessions of a Prairie Bitch. Autobiography.
Andrew Beahrs: Twain's Feast: Searching for America's lost foods in the footsteps of Samuel Clemens. Travel and food.
Georgette Heyer: The Convenient Marriage. Historical romance. Reread.
Sam Kean: The Disappearing Spoon: and other true tales of madness, love, and the history of the world, from the periodic table of the elements. Popular science/history.
Christian Lander: Stuff White People Like. Humour.
Ellis Peters: The Pilgrim of Hate, An Excellent Mystery and The Raven in the Foregate. Historical mysteries.
Nora Roberts: Brazen Virtue. Romantic suspense.
J.R. Ward: Lover Mine and Lover Unleashed. Urban fantasy/Paranormal romance.

10 September 2012

What‘s in a Name challenge review: The Motorcycle Diaries by Ernesto 'Che' Guevara, translated by Alexandra Keeble

Here is my second What‘s in a Name challenge read, no. 5, the something you‘d carry in your pocket, purse, or backpack, that thing being a diary.

The Motorcycle Diaries shows famous revolutionary Ernesto Guevara as young, roguish and immature but already beginning to form the ideas and ideology that would later lead him to join the Cuban revolution and attempt to carry through revolutions in the Congo and Bolivia, the latter which would cost him his life. How much of that revolutionary spark that can be seen here and there in the book is his own fiction and how much is true is impossible to know, as he edited the diary he kept of the journey and may have added to it to make it more interesting for his political brethren. The final chapter, his mini-manifesto of support for the downtrodden and for the revolution he believes in, is certainly a later addition, written to give the book a climax and a real ending.

For the most part, however, this book is about the joys of travel. Guevara and his travel companion set off on a motorcycle with more optimism than money to explore South-America. They abandoned the vehicle when it broke down irrevocably and continued on foot, horseback, in the backs of trucks, by boat and, on one leg of the journey, by air. On the way they saw beautiful nature, visited interesting places, met the sick, poor and disenfranchised and bummed food and accommodation off anyone who would give it, turning sponging into a sport out of necessity. They shivered through freezing nights and sweltered in the heat of days, drank and ate immoderately one day to compensate for the hunger of the previous and following days, became stowaways on a boat, visited leper hospitals and colonies and generally did as they pleased, although their dream of visiting Easter Island never came to frutition. It‘s really the kind of adventure many backpackers dream of when they set out on their journeys.Recommended, even if you don't agree with Guevara's ideology.