Shadow of the Silk Road – Colin Thubron

I wanted this book for ages and having read a fair few travel writers, it was nice to pick up a book where the reviews didn’t harp on about the hilarity of the words contained within, Perhaps it’s just me but travel books are about the people and places visited and not all about the author and his or her humourous misadventures.

Nevertheless when reviewers use phrases like ”erudition metamorphose into exquisite prose (The Economist) and ‘haunting, elegiac, melancholy [and] magical’ (Financial Times), you have to hope you are onto a good thing and not something really pretentious and self loving.

Colin Thubron travels along the first great trade route out of and subsequently into the heart of China. A journey of 7000 miles encompassing many well known countries such as modern Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan as well as trouble hotspots Afghanistan and Iran.

The Silk Road was for thousands of years the most important trade route in the world,  linking Asia to Europe,  and to travel it is to take in not only an evolution of culture that inspired empires but also to see of the roots of the many turmoils of today in these regions. This book then becomes equal parts travel book and history book. Showing the spreads of religions, scientific discoveries, architecture,  spices and fashions, amongst others along the Silk Road that changed and inspired cultures, a bit like a sandy internet if you will. Continue reading “Shadow of the Silk Road – Colin Thubron”

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1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die / The Big Read Book of Books

I love books like this, which is odd as they annoy me something chronic.

Just to give a quick overview of each: 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. All of them, 1001 books, this is not a recommendation, it is an order. Good luck.  With a title worded like that, that would have been the blurb if I was in charge.  The book is split in five sections, pre 1700’s, 1700’s etc and a bunch of university chappies and chappesses have picked the books. There are a couple of handy indexes of book titles and authors which is always good.

The Big Read Book of Books is the culmination of  2003 vote by the British people for their favourite books. The rules being that authors may only have one book in the top 21, so predictably spots 22-25 were taken up with three of the four Harry Potter books then published. 100-22 have been put in order but so the BBC cash in could begin this book went to press before the phone vote for the final 21 had been cast so the top 21 are just in alphabetical order. Again the index you would expect and also books 101-200 that missed the vote.

Both books are great to dip into and do a good job of whetting the readers appetite for reading a book(or five). Lavishly presented ,whilst 1001 goes for an understated reproduction of original book covers,film posters etc,  the BBC have had the same idea but added a small author biography and facts as well as photo captions.

Of course these books, as with any review, is entirely subjective and the arguments that these books will start are part of the fun but I can’t help being disappointed in  the way that to much space to the traditional heavyweight authors. This is perhaps more understandable in The Big Read book, as it was part of the Britain’s favourite read campaign but as ever there is never any criteria with which to make judgements.  It would have made sense to put a maximum number cap on entries per author. If the maximum an author could have, was say two then the Dickens and JK Rowling votes(for example) would have been more tactical. Did Terry Pratchett and Jaqueline Wilson really deserve five and four books respectively?Perhaps they do until a quick look at the 101-200 placed books reveals that Diary of a Nobody, Heart of Darkness and name of the Rose all missed out. But then again that is just me.

1001 pulls the same trick with Virginia Woolf (9 books), Beckett (10) rushdie and Don Delillo (7 respectively).  Way to much space is given to 20th century authors, there is no Iliad, Canterbury Tales or Divine Comedy in the woefully short pre 1700s category Interestingly there is one unwritten rule about both these books and that is that only fiction books were included. Which is a shame.

Luckily despite picking fault with the process I do come back to these books occasionally,  even the fact that Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat (the finest English comedy farce there is) hasn’t been included in either book has not deterred me and possibly more arguably Irene Nemirovsky, but that is of course just my subjectivisism.

These books are of the ‘coffee table’ variety but do offer so much scope for inspiration when inspired to buy a book or alternatively just help pass the time, Although if epic poems are your thing then you might want to look elsewhere.

The Conquest of Mexico – Hugh Thomas

The Conquest of Mexico was a historical event and also a book I have been reading, handily enough I recommend the book as a way into a fascinating subject. Here be the review.

Don’t let the huge number of pages(848) put you off, this is a very readable and thoroughly researched account  of the events leading upto the conquest and the inevitability of the action of conquest. But first to the beginning.  Parts 1 and 2 of the book involve the backgrounds of the two civilizations. For the Mexica(Aztecs) the focus is on the subjugation of and subsequent trade with other people in and around the valley of Mexico and also the domestic classes of people and the Gods which they worship. The religious set up is especially fascinating if you like your myths, as the stories mentioned in the book rival anything from ancient Greece or Mesopotamia.

The Spanish chapter focuses more on the capture of the outlying island of the Caribbean, the brutality with which the indigenous populations were treated and the ruthless commercial opportunism that abounded,  and the first explorations and meetings with the indigenous Peoples of the Yucatan and the Totanacs of Mexico. Continue reading “The Conquest of Mexico – Hugh Thomas”

Batavia’s Graveyard – Mike Dash

Harrowing and fascinating by turns this book tells of the true story of a shipwreck and subsequent mutiny of a small group of sailors of the ship Batavia. To sum the book up in one sentence, I could say it’s a look at the senseless cruelty and brutality of humankind, however that would do the book and indeed SOME of the people involved a disservice.

To start with the book gives a good grounding on the problems of the day: the troubles with the different maritime powers and all the geopolitics that comes with it, the problem of not being able to work out longitude, the rise of Amsterdam and the Dutch East India company(VOC) and some highly heretical theologies doing the rounds at the time. All this is worked in neatly with details of the harsh conditions of the passengers on the ship, where a trip from Europe to Holland could take upto two years such as lack of food and water, scurvy and suchlike.

The three main protagonists are each extensively researched to give some understanding and insight into how they were influenced by and indeed influenced matters. The latter half of the book is taken up with the moral decay and depravity of men seeking riches and power. A tale of struggles on a small archipelago against not just the elements but of corruption, madness, blood lust and weakness of will. All this taking place miles from any help without much hope. None of the details is glossed Continue reading “Batavia’s Graveyard – Mike Dash”

Love in the Time of Cholera – Gabriel García Márquez

‘Fifty-one years, nine months and four days have passed since Fermina Daza rebuffed hopeless romantic Florentino Arizo’s impassioned advances and married Dr. Juvenal Urbino instead. During that half century, Florentino has fallen into the arms of many delighted women, but has loved none but Fermina. Having sworn
his eternal love to her, he lives for the day when he can court her again.

When Fermina’s husband is killed trying to retrieve his pet parrot from a mango tree, Florentino seizes his chance to declare his enduring love. But can young love find new life in the twilight of their lives?’

So reads the back cover and whilst it gives you the plot of the book, it in no way prepares you for the sheer joy of the actual reading experience. This is a book for language lovers, the rhythmic prose has a poetic quality and I found myself on many occasions rereading the same lines just for the sheer joy of hearing them again.

What you are getting for your hard earned currency is a beautifully written love story, a celebration of love in all its forms. But of course no love story would ever be complete without a bucketful of melancholy, which runs in tandem with love throughout the book. Really though the scope is wider than either of these two emotions and is more a celebration of life in all its complexit Continue reading “Love in the Time of Cholera – Gabriel García Márquez”

Where’s Wally?

There it is that big, bright, bold cover asking that immortal of questions, Where’s Wally?

I approached these books with a somewhat blasé attitude. I get involved, find said chappie and his hangers on(and dog), job done, simple.  Of course that is not the way of life. What followed was not just an elaborate paper based game of hide and seek. Oh no! It was a journey into the very depths my humanity….

It was Sartre who once said ‘Man is not the sum of what he has already, but rather the sum of what he does not yet have, of what he could have’.  I believe he was refering to my predicament of hunting for Wally in the middle of a viking war zone or in a black and white silent movie scene.  You see I came to the realisation that to hunt for ‘Wally’ is to hunt for oneself,  to seek oneself out of the body.
Having realised that to find myself I must look into various bits of history (and the beach), there came the revelation that (as the philosopher  Soren Kirkegaard said): ‘The highest and most beautiful things in life are not to be heard about, nor read a Continue reading “Where’s Wally?”

Books for summer 2011

The next bunch of NEW reviews you read(for I have a ton of rewritten ones with which to amuse (?) you), will be from my summer list of books, generally featuring stuff I have been too lazy to read before now but can tenuously claim have some sort of connection with summer, or at least in my head anyways . Now all I have to do is read them…..

Sir Gregor MacGregor and the Land That Never Was  – David Sinclair

Sliced Iguana –  Isabella Tree

Captain corelli’s mandolin –  Louis de Bernieres

The Yacoubian Building –  Alaa Al Aswany

The Corfu trilogy – Gerald Durrell

Drinking Arak off an Ayatollah’s Beard – Nicholas Jubber

Love in the Time of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

The Long Goodbye – Raymond Chandler

A ghost in the Machine – Caroline Graham

Robinson Crusoe – Daniel Defoe

Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad