Tag Archives: armchair travel

On the Road by Jack Kerouac

On the Road by Jack Kerouac

Maternity leave has given me more time to read, so I’ve picked up a couple of Big Read books. Neither of them are #90 On the Road by Jack Kerouac, but I realised I never posted the review I wrote of that book. Here it is, almost exactly a year late.

On the Road on the rails
I’ve just finished On the Road, which I’ve read, appropriately enough, while riding the rails on a long train journey from Nha Trang to Ho Chi Minh City. On the Road is the tale of a wandering life as the main character, Sal, travels fairly aimlessly around the USA, in the company of other drifters. It’s fairly well understood that the book is broadly autobiographical fiction.

In our epic trip across and around the USA this summer we visited quite a lot of the places Sal goes to, including San Francisco, LA, San Antonio and a couple other places I don’t this moment recall.

Booze and bad parenting
The book does not do it for me. It’s written on a high, in a lovely drugged-out haze, and as you go through you can see all the damage that these mad bad men are doing as they go. There’s a scene where Sal and Dean punch a door together, and Sal breaks a bone in his hand. He’s so drunk he doesn’t notice until the morning. That’s what the book is. Throughout the book, people get married, have kids, cart these kids around to squats and tents, don’t feed them much and take a lot of drugs in front of them. The stated assumption is that the kids don’t mind. What Kerouac can’t seem to see is that his generation, mourning their own lost fathers, are the missing and deadbeat dads of tomorrow. Of today, in fact, as even as they look for their own lost paternal role models they are squandering the chance to provide what they’ve lost for their own kids.

The book is very much a man’s story and women only play a peripheral role in it. Each of the main characters gets entangled with various women over the course of the book. It’s written as entanglement, women making demands and needing to be managed, but it’s easy to read as a con. It’s as though they’re mountain climbers. The man is leading, and if he cuts the rope that binds the group, he can walk on more easily. The woman is more firmly tethered to the children, and is well aware that if he goes the rest of the party is likely to go over the cliff. Kerouac’s characters cut the rope without, it seems, realizing they’re doing any such thing at all.

The wit of wine
Sal (and Kerouac) find a romantic charm in the ravings of drunks and potheads. I really cannot be bothered. I feel like I’ve met these men, and I don’t respect them. They look very different when you’re one of their targets (or not a target, being excluded due to age or lack of beauty or…) than when you’re one of their buddies. As a buddy, they’re mad fun. They keep you out late. You drink too much, then go to work in the morning hungover and happy.

On the other side of the fence, you can see the lies. You can see how they’ll say anything, do anything to get a girl they fancy into bed – do anything, almost, apart from give her respect. Respect, as Aretha Franklin pointed out, is important.

And that’s without getting started on his comments about 9, 11, 13 and 15 year old girls, which need their own content warning, frankly.

Why read it then?
There are two strengths to the book, in my mind. First, it rips apart the staid and sober notion of the 1940s was only a time of war related privations and jitterbugging parties. There are no poodle skirts and duck tail hair cuts. The guys are roving the USA broke, ragged, drunk and stoned; there is a lot of pot in this book.

Second, Kerouac does have an engaging, intense, frantic way of describing the places characters go. It’s like a drunken celebration, where someone is telling you that he’s so, so happy that he got a great job, and he only had a couple of drinks, and did he mention that he’s having a baby soon, too, so it’s perfect timing and the sky is so beautiful tonight and birds always sing louder in summer and…

Don’t travel to the beat of this drum
This is clearly a book that launched a thousand trips, and that’s both understandable and a crying shame. It’s the worst book in the world to try to travel to. It describes times and places that only existed – if they existed at all – for a few people for a few moments. And even if you could manage to stomach all the drugs and alcohol, and went a year later (or had a time machine and went the same year) you’d never capture quite the same spirit.

The book skips over the weeks and months of working quietly and making money (although they are there, if you look), creating a picture of an endless party that you just can’t match in real life, although thousands have wrecked Ibiza trying… In a way, this is the Pinterest problem 60 years early: a view of a life that’s so carefully edited reality can only disappoint. There’s also a clear line of descent from here to The Beach, both in a literary sense and in terms of travel choices. A bit of backpacker history while we’re on the go, it’s interesting but distasteful at the same time.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

Reading Iceland

Reading Iceland

House of Evidence by Viktor Arnar Inglfósson
An Icelandic crime drama translated into English, I picked up House of Evidence because it was free, but really enjoyed it. Published in 1998 but set in 1973, the novel centres on the murder of a father and son. The murders are almost identical – but 30 years apart. As the book dives backwards into the father’s life, it covers the growth of Reykjavik from about 1900 to 1973. The history is pertinent, not intrusive. For a foreigner it’s ideal. The story moves along at a good clip. It’s a police procedural and not too gory. Being set in the ’70s, it talks about the early days of forensics and the limits the police are facing in their work, which is also interesting.

Names for the Sea by Sarah Moss
A lecturer in 19th century English literature, Sarah Moss moved to Iceland to take a post at Haskoli Islands, the main university in Iceland. In Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland she combines the story of her year, the troubles and joys she, her husband and two young sons faces, with the deeper things she learned about Iceland. I found it fascinating. As a foreigner, Moss struggles with and is interested in the things that baffle and interest other visitors. The book gave me lots of insights, and K has probably ‘read’ most of it now, either through looking over my shoulder at key points or from me quoting it en route. ‘The book says…’ is probably my most repeated phrase from Iceland. Moss accepted her job as the 2008 financial collapse unfurled. Towards the end of the book, it becomes clear that her year there was a particularly strange one for Iceland, so if you read the book before you go, ignore her bleak descriptions of the supermarkets – we found everything we wanted, from avocados to chocolate cereal.

Cold Earth by Sarah Moss
I thought Cold Earth was set in Iceland when I started it, but it’s not: it’s set in Greenland. However, the landscape and chill of summer really rang true with what I saw in Iceland, and it was well worth a read, so I’m including it anyway. A group of young archaeologists head off to spend the summer digging at a remote settlement in Iceland. Their sporadic contact with home indicates that a pandemic is developing. Has the world ended while they’ve been away? And if so, will they ever get home?

A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute

A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute

I first read #37 A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute about 12 months before I started doing the challenge, so it’s taken me a while to pick it up again, even though I enjoyed it the first time.

A Town Like Alice is a love story crossed with an epic war story. It’s the story of Jean Paget, who treats her remarkable life with an almost overwhelming degree of pragmatism and common sense. It switches rapidly between her brutal treatment as a prisoner of war in Malaya, a comfortable life in England and a new existence in the Australian outback. It covers an astonishing sweep of locations and places, and is hard to describe without giving too much of the game away.

A woman’s war
Jean Paget spends the Second World War as a prisoner of the Japanese in British Malaya (now part of Malaysia). The story of her sufferings is, according to the author. based on an account he heard from a Dutch woman of her experiences in Sumatra, and other war experiences are also apparently based on stories told to the author by the people who lived them.

It brings up an interesting point. Reading the book in 2013, the Second World War is so far away that it’s truly history to me. Anyone under 70 won’t have lived through it, anyone under 80 probably won’t remember much of it. But when A Town Like Alice was first published in 1950, the war was fresh and recent. Bombed out buildings still lined streets all over Europe and rationing would last another four years in the UK.

A Town Like Alice is unusual in that it focuses on a woman’s war story, and one that’s not on the home front. Jean Paget is working out in Malaya when she’s taken prisoner, and endures and suffers with a fortitude that would do credit to any stoic British male. She’s resourceful and brave – it’s an interesting tale, although sad and grim, with the detached matter-of-fact style which seems to be common in accounts from the period.

Where do you find a town like Alice?
Before I’d read the book, I was intrigued by the title and I will say I found the explanation to be disappointing, so I’ll spoil that surprise here. Alice, in this case, isn’t a person – it’s Alice Springs, an Australian town which, at the time of writing, was ‘a bonza place’ having a cinema, a swimming pool and some actual shops, in sharp contrast to the gold rush ghost towns nearby, where, according to the book, you couldn’t even buy fresh vegetables.

One of the most absorbing aspects of the book is how effortlessly Shute transports you from one exotic location to another. He starts out in a post-war London, as exotic as any of the rest as busy central districts are country suburbs and gentlemen still dine at their clubs. From there, you travel to Scotland, Southampton, Malaya and the Australian outback, each place vividly described in a few lines.

Content notes
Shute is a product of his time, and captures the prejudices of his subjects neatly and apparently unquestioningly. Both in Malaya and Australia, people who are not white are treated as inferior, sometimes respected for certain skills, sometimes treated well or badly by the white characters, but they are always treated differently.

Another disquieting aspect is Shute’s attitude towards sex. Not whether or not it should happen outside marriage, that’s old hat. Rather, the scene that shook me most, perhaps in the whole book, is one where the two romantic leads are anticipating their wedding, as the coy old fashioned phrase goes. They’re making out, in modern parlance, with a bit of necking and groping. Her clothes (for reasons which are pretty plausible, actually) fall off a bit (because he undoes a key knot) at which point the main character, who has survived far worse, turns her usual stoic calm to the man she loves. She thinks: ‘It’s not his fault, I brought this on myself.’ She’s clearly reluctant to take it any further but resigned. He says ‘Do you mind?’ and she says (this is not a paraphrase) ‘Not if you’ve got to. If you can wait till we’re married, I’d much rather, but whatever you do now I’ll love you just the same.’ Because, as everyone knows, once a man gets aroused there is nothing for it. It’s like dropping a rock out a window – if you flash a bit of skin, however accidentally, you better be resigned to having a whole lot of sex you don’t want.

I absolutely hate scenes like this. If anyone ever said something like that to me, I would be furious at the idea that, as a reasonable adult, I was unable to control myself enough to not hurt the person I loved. It’s a clear insult towards men who are decent human beings, while providing an excuse for those who are looking for one to behave cruelly. We spend all this time explaining to children and adults that it’s unacceptable to just do what you want when it hurts someone else, not, not even if you really want to, and then, what, write a blank cheque for rape if you’re really turned on.

Anyway, that’s my particular bugbear, although others will be more upset by different scenes. The book is a difficult read – children die, there’s plenty of racism, there’s deliberate cruelty and torture. So if the slightly detached, British stoic type narrative doesn’t help you drift through all this unscathed, you may want to give the book a miss. Otherwise, I recommend it. I was gripped and engaged, and read the whole book through in about a day. It’s an odd mix, part war story, part love story, part economic treatise on the growth of outback towns and I think it’s worth a look for that reason alone.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome

Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome

#101 Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome is available for free on Kindle and from Project Gutenberg.

Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) is a light-hearted account of a trip on the river Thames. The three men are J, the narrator, and his friends George and Harris. All three are finding work and life dull, and decide that there would be nothing better to revive their health and spirits than a two-week boating holiday. Like The Wind in the WillowsThree Men in a Boat is about the joys of messing about in boats.

A different time
Three Men in a Boat was written to be funny and topical, and has held up surprisingly well. It’s very easy to recognise the characters and situations Jay and his friends find themselves in, and to sympathise. That said, it’s also a glimpse into a lost world as it’s a contemporary report of a Victorian holiday.

First published in 1889, Three Men describes white collar Victorians at play. Jerome assumes that his readers will recognise the situations and topics he’s discussing, and will find the humour there. As a result, he covers the details of the trip, even down to the packing list, methods of rowing and division of labour, in great detail. It’s not often that a packing list makes me laugh out loud, but Jerome managed it.

For modern readers, this is an absolute blessing as it not only clears up troublesome questions (for example: how did the Victorians stay so smart while boating? Answer: they had their laundry done professionally, mid-trip) but also takes us behind the scenes in ordinary late-Victorian lives. It’s like Diary of a Nobody in that it’s not only still funny today (at least, I found it funny) but also illuminates the period. While reading Dickens might be a good way to discover the squalor of early Victorian London, Three Men in a Boat is a much more fun way to visit a late Victorian spree.

Funny and wise
I really like this book. It’s joyful and funny and quirky and clever. Jerome illustrates his story throughout with little bits of wisdom, ironically included and usually illustrated by his characters ignoring them. In many ways, Three Men is a lesson in how to travel and covers a broad range of topics from how not to pack to the importance of being good humoured with your companions.

K and I have been travelling a lot this summer, and I’ve been thinking about the hows and whys of travel as we go (I will probably write more about this next month, when I have reliable internet access again). Three Men in a Boat is definitely part of my ideal library for armchair travellers. It’s not about travelling half way around the world, like The Beach, and it’s not a story about a great adventure, breaking records and dealing with extremes of human endurance. It’s much more relevant than that, and no less inspiring: it’s a story about getting out and doing something, about leaving the house, even if you’re underprepared, and about staying friends while you do.

It also makes the River Thames sound absolutely beautiful, and despite the 120 years which have elapsed, and my own lack of rowing skills, I’m strongly tempted to go down to the river, hire a boat and head off upstream. I will try not to expect everything to be just as Jerome describes, although his book does actually make a pretty good guidebook, easy to read, easy to follow and listing all the major sights.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

The Beach by Alex Garland

The Beach by Alex Garland

I would probably never have read #103 The Beach by Alex Garland if it wasn’t for the Big Read list and that would have been a shame as I really enjoyed it.

The Beach is a fictional travel memoir, describing the physical and spiritual journey of Richard, one of the many Western tourists clogging up Thailand’s beaches. Determined to find something real and unspoiled, he travels further off the beaten path than he ever intended.

Shark in the water
As a writer, you’re supposed to front-load your work with a hook, something which will draw your reader in and keep them interested long enough to pay for the book. The Beach is like a deep-sea angler fish – the shining lure has little in common with the teeth that follow, and yet is part of the same creature. 

I’ll try not to spoil this book, but I find it hard to review it fairly without discussing some of the things which come after the first shift. At least one friend was put off reading The Beach because the opening struck him as pretentious crap, and I can entirely understand this point of view. However, I think that’s deliberate and it changes rapidly. 

I will say that this is not a fluffy or friendly book. The cover of the Kindle edition is garish and has a skull in the centre, which seems a reasonable representation, but other editions seem to just have a beach, and look more like a holiday romance. This is not the sort of book that guarantees a happy ending.

Tourist or traveller?
The Beach
opens with Richard having a series of unsettling encounters in a hostel in Thailand and from the very first page it’s addressing what it means to travel, to be ‘a traveller’ or ‘a tourist’ and whether there’s any difference at all. The travellers think there’s a big difference – really travelling means looking for something authentic, spiritual even, something fresh, new and unspoiled while tourists just see the sights.

And yet, as a reader, you’re probably already questioning this definition listening to the characters talk. They’ve seen all these places, and they’ve gone just to look and say they did. Where’s the difference between a package holiday to Paris and three months exploring Thai beaches? What have they learned? Who have they helped? What have they changed?

The quest for something fresh and unspoiled, a land without other footprints, drives the characters in the story and it’s a uncomfortable quest. The travellers move through Thailand with little regard for the Thai people, either individually or collectively. This is an old-fashioned narrative of discovery – we found it, and look! there are all these people living here already.

The Beach is a clever book – it manages to be the thing and more than the thing. It’s a story about a beach, about a trip, and it’s also a dissection of travelling, of all the beaches and all the trips. It’s decidedly thought provoking and I definitely recommend it to anyone interested in travel.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

Beneath Outback Skies by Alissa Callen

Beneath Outback Skies by Alissa Callen

Deep into a drought, Paige Quinn is battling to keep the farm she loves from going under. With her father, a wheelchair user, unable to do heavy farm work, the last thing Paige needs is a city boy taking up her time and using their precious water.

But Tait Cavanaugh is surprisingly at home on the land, and unexpectedly easy on the eye, leaving Paige wondering: does she need him around after all? And if she does, will he stay?

I hadn’t encountered the Random Romance imprint, never mind the author, before I saw Beneath Outback Skieson Net Galley, but that didn’t stop me judging it by the cover, deciding yes please, and requesting a review copy. I’m glad I did, as I enjoyed it a lot.

Beneath Outback Skies didn’t disappoint, and I gobbled it up happily. I’d love to visit Australia one day, and until I can get hold of a plane ticket, books like this are a great way to travel.

Callen delivers a charming love story between two very likeable characters, deeply rooted in a way of life which few people will be familiar with. The drought Paige is battling has lasted five years, and the love story takes place against a backdrop of a community suffering deeply but mostly working together to pull through.

Living next to one of Europe’s largest lakes, water conservation around the home is a hobby, not a life preserver, so diving head-first into Paige’s dry, dusty world was a bit of a shock. Obviously, I don’t know if Callen got it right, but the story is full of small details which make it ring true for me.

As this is a romance, the pleasure is in the journey, the destination preordained. The journey is delectable – I really liked Paige and Tait came across as a really good guy, avoiding the opportunities offered to be an overbearing, entitled nuisance, and despite her troubled past and present, and his keeping certain secrets close to his chest, their blossoming romance felt natural. With two characters I could respect, and would be happy to have round to dinner, an upbeat ending was sweet. The area around the farm and the local town, shops, livestock, people and all, also came alive, which given I’ve got snow out the windows, I thought was a feat worth applauding.

All in all, I enjoyed Beneath Outback Skies, and will be looking out for other books from this author – I’ve already downloaded the sample for What Love Sounds Like, although the cover isn’t nearly as appealing!

I received a review copy of this book through NetGalley free from the publishers, Random House Books Australia. You can see their page about Beneath Outback Skies here.

Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

In at #62 Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden isn’t a book I was looking forward to. I’ve had a strong negative review from a friend doing the challenge and a mixed review from Alex in Leeds. I also remember reading it ten or fifteen years ago and feeling cheated. It wasn’t as bad as I’d thought it might be, but it’s not one I want to reread.

A girl with unusual eyes and a pretty face is born into a poor, unlucky family in Japan. Age nine she’s sold to a geisha-house in Kyoto, to be trained as a geisha. The novel tells the story of her life, from that day forward.

A big lie
There are a number of things which will make me stop reading a book, series or author, and fake biographies are high on my ‘hell no’ list. I’m happy with novels – I love novels, some of my best friends are novels – and lots of novels are first-person story-of-my-life deals. That’s fine. What I don’t like is being lied to and Memoirs starts with a big lie: the first chapter is titled ‘Translator’s Note’, and tells, very briefly, a story of a man half in love with a geisha, who has had the honour of sharing her story with the public.

As this is a novel, written in English by an American, there is no translator to this edition. The first time I read the book, I was about 16 and this just confused me. Now, it pisses me off: I know this is a novel, the author knows this is a novel. So what is this supposed to add, and at what cost? A less savvy reader, myself at 16 for example, may be confused by this note, or take it to mean that the story is true in ways it isn’t: that it was written by a woman, for example, or someone Japanese. They may – as I once did – ascribe more weight to the truth of the history than the book can actually support.

Moreover, Memoirs isn’t a very good memoir. Its focus is so tight that the novel unfolds as though the main character is experiencing it directly – although she entertains important men, generals, ministers and captains of industry, and has about fifty years of hindsight, her commentary on the wider situation in Japan and the world is frustratingly vapid. Most memoirs recognise that the audience won’t be familiar with the time and place, so while even pop stars will include helpful notes like ‘as Germany was bombing London we…’ or ‘it would be another five years before…’ Golden goes the other way, acting as though all his readers will immediately understand which bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, how long the effects of the Great Depression lasted in Japan, why Japan was interested in closer relations with Germany in the 1930s, what they were doing in Manchuria… it’s not all common knowledge, and even if it is, it’s nice to have it confirmed.

This leaves the story feeling rootless – as though it could be set in any era – and doesn’t help me trust the author. And when you’re writing about something which clearly isn’t your own experience, whether it’s history or SF, you need to earn the reader’s trust.

I think this is the crux of my problems with the book, on a meta level: I don’t trust Golden to be right, to be accurate, or to be telling a realistic story. And I have no way to check.

Not the story for me
On a textual level, the book didn’t grab me either. I found it hard to settle into it, for the reasons described, but also found the mix of levels of detail confusing. I suspect that Golden has done his best as there are detailed descriptions of many tangible artifacts like kimono, certain rooms in certain teahouses, jewellery and gifts – to the point where Alex in Leeds likens it to a clothes catalogue – which I suspect are things he’s actually seen, probably in museums or private collections. What’s missing is the sense of place – the things which are hard to get right if you weren’t there. The things which were unlikely but true, poor examples of time and place, like the fact it rarely snows in my part of Switzerland, and we never had a snow day.

The book is sensational and bland at once: the main character has a grand passion, an unwavering love from age 12 or so (which I find unlikely so it’s another strike against the novel in my book) which lasts at least twenty years. Everything she does revolves around this grand love, in a way which just seems so unnecessary. She’s trapped by this love almost as much as she is by the restrictive society she lives in and the slavery she’s been sold into.

The exotic
Things which are unfamiliar and beautiful are intriguing – it’s one reason why geisha are interesting, both within Japan and abroad. But exotic is entirely a matter of perspective, as I’ve written about before, and to the geisha their lives should be normal. The book doesn’t manage to wear the culture comfortably, to my mind, and the story is perhaps too thin to carry the weight of showing off the culture that the author wants to do, and yet not thin enough to be invisible. I remember reading One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn at school. Set in a Russian gulag, it describes a good day, maybe a really good day, in the life of one of the inmates. Nothing much happens – the plot is so thin as to be invisible – and the focus is very tight, yet it highlights the brutality of the system in a way a memoir might not.

By choosing an extraordinary life, Golden has made Memoirs about the plot, not the setting, and by focusing on the setting, not the plot, he’s done both a disservice. It might have been a more satisfying book if he’d told the story of Pumpkin, an entirely ordinary geisha, but as it stands, the book isn’t one I’d recommend. If you want a good story set in Japan, read something else, I quite like The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, and if you want to find out about geisha, read non-fiction – perhaps Geisha of Gion, which is actually the memoirs of a geisha, or Geisha by Liz Dalby, an American who trained as a geisha.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

All Roads Lead to Austen by Amy Elizabeth Smith

All Roads Lead to Austen by Amy Elizabeth Smith

I picked up All Roads Lead to Austen by Amy Elizabeth Smith when it was on sale for £1.99 in December. I bought it somewhat misguidedly as I thought the three Austen novels covered in it were the three on the Big Read list. They weren’t, so I wound up reading an extra book, which I’m sure is a terrible thing.

The Jane Austen novels covered by Smith are #2 Pride and Prejudice, #40 Emma and (not on the list) Sense and Sensibility.

All Roads Lead to Austen is a travel memoir with a twist. Smith teaches English Lit, including Austen’s work, at a California university and decided to spend a year’s sabbatical travelling around Latin American holding book groups on Austen novels. She wanted to:

  • Travel
  • Learn Spanish
  • Find out if Austen’s novels resonated with modern people from Latin America

I think it’s fair to put her aims in that order as while the book groups gave shape to her trip and allowed her to meet a lot of interesting people, they didn’t take up that much of the book.

Jane Austen’s works
As I was reading Smith’s book as part of a personal Austen challenge, I was a little disappointed by the shortage of Austen-related information in the book. I enjoyed reading the book group discussions, and they certainly brought up points which I hadn’t considered and vocalized things I’d half-noticed, but I wanted more out of it. Knowing that Smith was a PhD and (by her own description) serious Janeite, I was hoping for an in depth analysis of each novel somewhere in the book. That didn’t happen.

However, I think that the level of discussion would have been enough for most people – if I’d been reading Smith’s book without reading the source novels I would probably have struggled to remember all the details that are required for a deep textual analysis. So while I was disappointed, that’s probably only because my expectations were off-kilter: you shouldn’t have to read 3 other books to enjoy this one, and Smith has rightly written with that in mind.

Travel by book
Each book group discussion is just one part of Smith’s visit to a particular country, and I really enjoyed her travel writing because she’s so fixated on books. In every city she visited, Smith made sure she found at least one book store or flea market, talked to local people about books and asked them about local authors of note. And then she wrote it down.

While I may never visit the beautiful places she wrote about, I can read the authors she encountered. Her anecdotal style gave information about an author alongside a reaction from the person who recommended them and descriptions of her visit to their country. It’s an ideal combination for piquing my interest and I probably highlighted every author she mentioned with the intention of adding their work to my wishlist.

I enjoyed the book, and would recommend it to any armchair travellers with a passion for books. It’s an odd mix, but if you think of it as Latin America on 10 Books A Day  rather than All About Jane Austen then you won’t be disappointed.

One of the things I loved about the book were the beautiful illustrations marking each new country and chapter. They are absolutely charming and you can see some of them on Smith’s site as well as read an excerpt from the book and find out more about her project.

The Far Pavillions by MM Kaye

The Far Pavillions by MM Kaye

I read #168 The Far Pavillions in a marathon session over the course of two days. As the book is over 1,000 pages long, that would normally be a strong recommendation but in fact it was due back at the library and I couldn’t be bothered to track it down again – my response was mixed and lukewarm at best.

Can’t avoid the word ‘epic’
The Far Pavillions isn’t just long – it’s also sweeping, grand, vast, complex and other words like that. The novel is broken into several sections which are called ‘books’, and honestly I feel the story – or at least the readers – would have been better served by breaking it up.

The novel begins with a young English woman marrying a crusty academic who is studying the languages and politics of northern India, in the foothills of the Himalayas. This would be enough plot to fill a novel, but is rattled over fairly quickly, as its the origin story for Our Hero, Ash. After a series of unfortunate deaths and the untimely intervention of the 1857 Indian Rebellion, Ash is left in the care of his nurse, a woman from the hills who treats him as her son.

The novel then shifts through a range of different genres – exotic childhood memoir; young British officer / hero of the Raj; palace intrigue; romance; spy story; war story. Each section is fairly distinct, and the change is fairly abrupt. I consider myself a skilled and experienced reader, but it did leave me scrambling to shift gears and reduced my enjoyment of the book as a whole, although most of the sections were pretty good.

White history of India
A problem I had with the book is that it is set in India, between roughly 1850 and 1880 and written by a white (as far as I can tell) woman whose ties to the country are through the Raj – several generations of her family served in the British army in India, her great-uncle wrote a book about the mutiny mentioned above, her husband’s family were also in the British army.

As I know nothing about the history of India at that period, I can’t tell if MM Kaye has written a reasonable account or if The Far Pavillions deserves the cover line “The Gone with the Wind of the North-West frontier” not just for page count and war stories but also for blatant white-washing.

What I can say is that parts of the book read like a story from Arabian nights – beautiful princesses, evil courtiers, forced marriage and murder – but there again, costumes aside, so do parts of British royal history and so do the family histories of plenty of ordinary folk.

In addition, MM Kaye co-opts actual historical characters for her novel, giving them major roles in her stories and creating backgrounds, episodes and conversations whole-cloth. The line between outright fiction and historical fact is severely blurred – as far as I can tell its as though she had added an extra character to Churchill’s war room or Elizabeth I’s inner circle and personally, I don’t like that. But books like The Other Boleyn Girl have been very popular so perhaps I’m in a minority.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

Heidi by Joanna Spyri

Heidi by Joanna Spyri

The third book I’ve read off the list is #189. Heidi is available to download for free through Project Gutenberg.

I’ve got mixed views of this book, because Heidi and I have a long history. I’m Swiss – I have dual nationality, so I’m British too – which affects both how I read Heidi (in English, not German for a start) and how other people read me. The most popular icon of Swiss femininity is (as far as the British public is concerned) a rosy-cheeked cherub with a fondness for goats. Martina Hingis is definitely in second place.

Heidi Goes to University
I’m not surprised that the novel made it into the top 200. I started university around the time the list came out, and it seemed that most of my fellow students had learned about Swiss culture and geography from Heidi. (They’d learned French from Moulin Rouge, which also made things interesting…) Just to clarify – in case anyone was left in doubt – my family didn’t have any goats, we didn’t live on an alp and in this sense, that’s not just up a mountain but in a high pasture. We didn’t live up a mountain. And I don’t speak Swiss (there’s no such thing). Or Swedish.

Memories of a Swiss childhood
I think I read Heidi for the first time in Torquay – that’s Devon, not some curious coincidence – and my memories of the book from childhood are entwined with my English family. I remember reading the book with my mum and I don’t remember ever thinking that Heidi was like me at all. Her life (sorry to disappoint) was nothing like mine – and I didn’t think I’d like hers much. For one thing, it’s easy enough to whisk up and down a mountain on paper – or on a ski lift – but actually walking up is several hours of increasingly dull and painful work. And Heidi’s goats never headbutted her in the stomach so she fell over, or ate her coat.

The book itself
Joanna Spyri has written a charming ode to the beauties of the mountains and the simple life. It’s a lovely daydream and pleasant to read. If anything, it’s over-sweet as the pure mountain air and goats milk perform enough miracles to qualify them for sainthood – although they do stop short of making the blind see.

The novel is definitely a product of its time, and it seems somewhat unfair to criticize a book written to please children in 1880 for being so wildly successful that, almost 150 years later, it’s how people imagine life in Swiss farming communities was like. It wasn’t. Switzerland is beautiful and picturesque and – to all but a very few of the 7 billion people on the planet – foreign so people assume that the landscape is as kind as it is fair. It isn’t. And although the sunsets are brilliant enough to make artists faint, they don’t have any particular effect on the goatherds – or the goats. Agricultural life was – and is – hard up in the high places. The ski season lasts from December to April because there’s usually at least a metre of snow on the ground that whole time. Spyri glosses over this – no one grows anything in the books, and the winters pass quickly and easily. Heidi’s grandfather always has enough money, and the fact that Peter and his family are slowly starving isn’t commented on. There are other dark secrets in Swiss history and many children sent to the alps weren’t as happy as Heidi.

All this makes it hard for me to whole-heartedly recommend the book. The novel itself is typical of the period with a clear moral message for the children it was intended for. Heidi learns about Christianity part way through, and the message gets even more heavy handed after that. It endorses several ideas I can’t support as well – like the idea you can’t be happy until you’re healthy or that goats’ milk is better than medicine.

That said, I did enjoy the book while I was reading it  – it’s so happy and light that it’s hard not to. Just don’t expect to enjoy thinking about it much afterwards…

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.