Sunday, October 19, 2014

Reading :: The Narrow Road to the Deep North

The 2014 Man Booker Prize for Fiction was awarded this week to Australian writer Richard Flanagan for his novel about Australian POWs during World War II, The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

Since 1969, the Man Booker Prize has been awarded annually for the best original novel "written in English and published in the UK in the year of the prize, regardless of the nationality of their author." (The 2014 prize created some controversy because, for the first time, American authors were included in the long list and short list.) The prize includes an award of £50,000, making it one of the richest literary prizes.

I have made it a goal to read the Booker Prize winners over the past several years, and when this year's winner was announced, I was halfway through Flanagan's novel, having chosen it from the shortlisted novels because of its title, which is taken from a classic travel book by the Japanese poet Basho.

Flanagan’s book is dedicated “To Prisoner 335” — his father Archie, who was a POW during World War II and who, like the POWs in the novel, worked on the "Death Railway" in Burma. Archie survived the war and died at the age of 98, the day Flanagan finished writing his novel.

The setup. There are two stories running through Flanagan's novel, both united by a common character, the Australian doctor Dorrigo Evans. One story involves a group of Australian POWs forced to help build a railroad through the Burmese jungle during World War II; Evans served as the physician and ranking officer for the POW camp. The second involves an affair that Evans had with his uncle's wife prior to being sent off to war. Both events haunt Evans throughout the novel.

You’ll like the book if ...
  • You agree with General Grant that war is hell. Flanagan's portrayal of the conditions of the POW camp in Burma recounts in unrelenting detail the beatings that the men suffer at the hands of their captors, the starvation, the cholera, the ulcers, the gangrene, the constant rain and mud, and the other seemingly unending tortures that are visited upon the POWs. Some 13,000 POWs died trying to build the railway, and Flanagan portrays with great power what his narrator calls "the suffering, the deaths, the sorrow, the abject, pathetic pointlessness of such immense suffering by so many."
  • You admire sparse, stark writing. Flanagan writes in a quiet, straightforward style that does not flinch in detailing the horrors of the war. His descriptions of the other parts of Flanagan's life — his dull, kind-hearted wife; his guilt over the affair with his uncle's wife; his womanizing after the war — are also straightforward and almost emotionless, reflecting Evans's sense of alienation.  There is a haiku-like simplicity to his writing.
  • You appreciate multiple points of view. Both during and after the war, Flanagan shifts from the viewpoint of Dorrigo Evans, the main narrator of the novel, into the minds of various Japanese and Korean guards, helping us see the war from their point of view, as they "used [their] powers for the sake of the Empire and the Emperor."
You won’t like the book if ...
  • You believe in heroes. There are no heroes in this novel. After the war, Evans becomes celebrated following a documentary about his work in the camps, but he is not a particularly admirable individual — he is a poor doctor whose experiments in treating colon cancer don't work; he cheats on his wife; he is an inattentive father. As Evans himself speculates, "It seemed to him that the world simply allowed for some things and punished others, that there was neither reason nor explanation, neither justice nor hope."
  • You're squeamish. Flanagan's descriptions of the dying men and the conditions of the POW camp may be too graphic for many readers. Readers who will be unsettled by men whose skin is peeling off their bodies, men who are covered with sores, men who are starved and thin beyond belief, or men who are "a muddy bundle of broken sticks" should look elsewhere.
Notice how ... Flanagan uses poetry in the novel, both the haiku whose crystalline beauty is in stark contrast with the cruel justice meted out by the Japanese and Korean officers who quote the verses, and Tennyson's "Ulysses," which is Evans's favorite poem and whose hero returns to his faithful wife, Penelope, in contrast to Evans, who is unfaithful to the loving wife to whom he returns after the war.

Appeal factors. Character is the primary appeal factor of the novel, which is replete with well constructed, complex characters like Dorrigo Evans; Darky Gardiner, who is the group's optimist but who is brutally beaten when some of his men hide from work; Nakamura, Japan's commander of the railway camp, who imagines himself covered with jungle ticks and who is addicted to methamphetamine; Rabbit Hendricks, who makes sketches and drawings of camp life; Rooster MacNeice, who passes the time by memorizing Hitler's Mein Kampf; Tiny Middleton, whose muscular body finally betrays him. Flanagan follows many of the characters after the war, when some "died off quickly, strangely, in car crashes and suicides and creeping diseases."

What's next?
  • "The Bridge on the River Kwai" (both the 1957 Academy Award winning David Lean film and the 1952 novel by Pierre Boulle) is also about Japan’s construction of the Thailand-Burma "Death Railway" during World War II. Many people have criticized the depictions of conditions in the POW camp in the film and the book as naive, and they certainly pale in comparison with the horrendous, putrid desolation of Flanagan's novel. Nevertheless, some readers may want a different perspective.
  • Other memoirs of life and death during the railway's construction — including John Coast’s chilling Railroad of Death and H. Robert Charles’s remarkable Last Man Out: Surviving the Burma-Thailand Death Railway — may be of interest to readers who want more information about this aspect of World War II.
  • Washington Post critic Ron Charles said that "Nothing since Cormac McCarthy’s The Road has shaken me like this — all the more so because it’s based on recorded history, rather than apocalyptic speculation," and it's an apt comparison.  McCarthy's stark prose in The Road is similar in style to Flanagan in this novel.
  • Flanagan's other novels may also be of interest.  In Death of a River Guide, a river guide drowns and, while he dies, reflects of his life and his family's past.  In Gould's Book of Fish, the daily torments of a 19th-century Tasmanian prison colony are seen through the eyes of a convict who is kept in a partially submerged cage.
  • Flanagan's novel is filled with references to the Japanese poetry genre haiku and takes its title from Japanese poet Matsu Basho’s late 17th-century work, The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches. Basho's work describes his journey, which followed in the footsteps of the 12th-century Japanese poet Saigyo Hoshi and visited all of the sites mentioned in his verses. Jane Reichhold translated Basho’s haiku and published them as a single volume, Basho: The Complete Haiku. Sam Hamill’s translations of Basho and other masters of haiku are found in The Sound of Water: Haiku by Basho, Buson, Issa, and Other Poets.
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Thursday, October 2, 2014

Dolman Best Travel Book Award Winner

The Dolman Best Travel Book Award for books published in 2013 was given this week to French writer Sylvain Tesson for The Consolations of the Forest, about his attempt to escape a pressure-filled life in Paris by living for six months in an isolated log cabin — 75 miles from the nearest village — on the shore of Lake Baikal in Siberia, the world's oldest and deepest fresh water lake. With 70 books at his side, Tesson explores the nature of solitude, philosophizes on art and literature, and contemplates the freedom of the wilderness. "Better to live joyfully in a wilderness clearing than languish in a city," he decides.

The Dolman Best Travel Book Award is the only major travel book award in Britain that is open to all writers. It was first given in 2006, just two years after the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award was dropped by its sponsor. The annual prize is organized by the Author's Club in Great Britain and is sponsored by and named for club member William Dolman.

Past winners of the prize have been:
  • 2012, John Gimlette, Wild Coast: Travels on South America's Untamed Edge. Gimlette's book focuses on the lesser-known South American countries of Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana, three rugged countries that he visited in 2008 and found to be "a vast, malarial dystopia of stinking swamps, thorns, bandits, bugs the size of rats and dark carnivorous forest." Undertaking the journey because one of his ancestors had disappeared in the jungle there nearly 400 380 years ago, Gimlette manages to write what one reviewer called "a spirited historical, political and personal travelogue guaranteed to arouse the adventurous reader’s wanderlust."
  • 2011, Rachel Polonsky, Molotov’s Magic Lantern: A Journey in Russian History. Polonsky moved to Moscow and settled in an apartment that had been the residence of several members of the Soviet governing elite, including Vyacheslav Molotov, one of Stalin’s henchmen. Polonsky uses the books in Molotov’s library and his old “magic lantern” (image projector) as a way of searching for Russia’s Soviet history, visiting the cities of the books’ authors, many of whom were executed or sent to the Gulags by Molotov. Part memoir, part travelogue, and part literary history, Polonsky’s book is wide ranging, both geographically (the vast landscape of Russia) and intellectually (she discusses the history of collective farming on one page and the poet Anna Akhmatova’s honeymoon on the next), and is as rich as the country she seeks to understand.
  • 2010, Ian Thomson, The Dead Yard. British journalist Ian Thomson’s hard-hitting book argues that there are two Jamaicas (an idyllic resort and its gang-controlled, drug-ridden, corrupt underbelly) and sets out to understand why this is the case. Thompson visits ghettos and plantations to interview a wide number of Jamaicans from all levels of society and finds a country tied to its colonial past, one that has “slipped painfully and not entirely from British rule onto a path dictated by the crime 1 and business interests of the United States and its Caribbean neighbors.” In spite of his gloomy assessment, Thomson does tease out the hope for a brighter future than many of its citizens hold.
  • 2009, Alice Albinia, Empires of the Indus. Albinia follows the Indus River both geographically (upstream from its mouth in Karachi to its source in Tibet) and historically, travelling backward in history to recount the history of Pakistan. Her attention to scholarly detail is impressive, and she also expresses her sorrow and frustration over the ongoing political conflicts that made the trip nearly impossible, as well as over the ecological devastation of the great river, which has led to its frequent flooding. The book is well researched and skillfully combines elements of travel narrative, history, and environmental writing.
  • 2008, John Lucas, 92 Acharnon Street. In 1984, Lucas traveled to Greece to teach English literature for a year at the University of Athens. Though he has no illusions about the problems facing Greece (the inept bureaucracy delayed his first payment until Christmas), he does fall in love with the tavernas, the crazy traffic, the proximity to the beautiful blue waters of the Aegean, and the conviviality of the Greek people. Lucas writes about Greece’s recent history (its mistreatment by the Allies after World War II, its painful civil war, and the cruelties of the junta that ruled the country from 1967 to 1974), but his focus is on the contemporary daily life of this gritty city.
  • 2007, Claire Scobie, Last Seen in Lhasa. Scobie was a young journalist who accompanied a group of British botanists on several treks into southern Tibet in search of rare red lilies. On one of the treks, she meets Ani, a middle-aged Buddhist nun and yogini, through whom Scobie begins to understand both the beauty of Tibet and the persecution of the land’s people at the hands of the Chinese, who seem intent on destroying their Buddhist faith. Scobie’s affection for Ani shines through in her elegant, absorbing prose.
  • 2006, Nicholas Jubber, The Prester Quest. In 1177, Pope Alexander III sent a letter to Prester John (a legendary Christian king during Medieval times who was said to rule over a Christian nation among the Muslims of Africa or the Middle East) via his physician, who promptly disappeared. Over eight centuries years later, Nicholas Jubber finds a copy of the Pope’s letter and decides to deliver the letter to the tomb of an Ethiopian king sometimes connected to the fabled king. The resulting book is Jubber’s first and is filled with historical anecdotes, insights, and lots of enthusiasm. As one reviewer noted, it combines “serious historical research and entertaining esca- pades with credibility and passion.”
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Saturday, September 27, 2014

What I Read This Summer

Summer is the best time for me as far as reading goes. My consulting projects typically wind down in late April or May and don't start up again until July or August, so the summer provides with enough downtime to make my way through some books.

This summer, I read the usual mix of fiction and nonfiction, although I probably read more fiction than usual. And with one exception, I didn't read any travel narratives.

  • I came to Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion after hearing an interview with the author on one of my favorite blogs, EconTalk. Haidt looks into the question of why people disagree so much on politics and religion, particular when humans are supposed to be a rational species. He argues that our moral intuitions trump our moral reasoning; that morality consists of six factors (some of which liberals hold more strongly, others of which conservatives hold more strongly); and that humans are 90% chimp and 10% bee (i.e., that social morality matters). I tend to buy into Haidt's arguments, and they are clearly presented and well documented. I just need to think through the book's implications. It's a good book for readers interested in politics and morality and why the right and the left can't seem to meet in the middle. Some readers have felt that Haidt is too much of a conservative apologist, but I disagree and found his book to be quite balanced.
  • Jennifer Ouellette is one of my favorite people on Twitter and the author of one of my favorite science blogs, Cocktail Party Physics. Her book, The Calculus Diaries, interested me because of my long and troubled history with calculus. I failed to take the course in high school because of an unfortunate scheduling mix-up, and I nearly failed the class in college, because I was being irresponsible. Like me, Ouellette has never been comfortable with calculus — she's a math phobe — and the book is her attempt to come to terms with this branch of mathematics. The book provides a brief overview of calculus by explaining some everyday situations in which it is useful. (To oversimplify, the derivative is about measuring the rate of change, and the integral is about measuring the cumulative effect of an ongoing process.) Ouellette stays away from the details, for the most part, although there are some “math-y” appendices. It's a good book for higher level math phobes, but anyone who wants more detail will likely be frustrated.
  • Many years ago, I dated someone who liked the German poet Rilke very much. In a valiant attempt to better understand her, I read Rilke's poems. They struck me as overly difficult and deliberately arcane, which goes a long way towards explaining why the relationship didn't work out. So I read Wolfgang Leppmann's Rilke: A Life in an attempt to at least come to grips with the great German poet. The biography is informative, especially about Rilke's travels and friends, but it doesn't really focus enough on his literature or the process by which he produced it. Nevertheless, some of the information did prove helpful in unraveling his rather esoteric poems. For readers trying to come to grips with Rilke, it's a good place to start, although I suspect that other biographies may do a better job.
  • I occasionally try to fill in the gaps in my reading of the canon, and this led me to tackle Marcel Proust's Swann's Way, which I had begun several times. (I usually feel asleep during Proust's opening discussion of his difficulties falling asleep as a boy.) To me, the book was uneven but, all in all, a great work. The narrator's memories of his childhood in Combray are especially well written as are the final nostalgic thoughts triggered by his thoughts of Mme. Swann. The middle section (“Swann in Love”) is a bit tedious, though, especially with the unsympathetic Verdurins and Swann's mistreatment at the hands of Odette. But when Proust is good, he's very good.
  • After finishing Swann's Way, I turned to Alain De Botton's How Proust Can Change Your Life, hoping to gain further insight into the great French writer. Unfortunately,this cross between a literary biography and a self-help book is tongue-in-cheek and somewhat silly. Occasionally there are interesting facts about Proust's life and occasionally there are good points to be made (e.g., one should not worship favorite authors but should use their insights to bring out one's own appreciation of the truth), but for the most part, it was a breezy, disappointing little book.
  • The American Library Association's annual conference was in Las Vegas this year, and I attended. Watching folks play poker, I started thinking about the game and what it might be like to play for real money. So I picked up Colson Whitehead's book, The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death, in which the best-selling novelist is sent by a magazine to play in the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. At his best, Whitehead is very funny. But unfortunately, he writes in jargon and does little to explain the game of poker. He also rambles quite a bit. For readers interested in learning more about poker from the inside, there have to be better books.
  • The Booklist Reader had an interesting piece this summer about mysteries for a book group discussion. I picked up one of these, Sandra Dallas's The Persian Pickle Club, and found it to be pure entertainment. A newcomer from the city moves to the small town of Harleyville, Kansas, in the Dust Bowl 1930s and joins a women's quilting group. A man is found murdered, and the newcomer tries to solve the mystery. The book is great fun, a reflection on the value of friendships, and a nice portrait of life in those days in that part of the world. It's especially good for readers who enjoy the time and the place, quilting, and light who-dun-its
  • The only travel narrative I read this summer was Rory Stewart's The Places in Between, which I reviewed here. Stewart’s first book recounts his 2002 walk across Afghanistan, a journey that he had been warned would be very dangerous. Luckily for Stewart, he survived, thanks to his knowledge of Persian and Muslim customs and thanks to the kindness of the many strangers whom he met. Stewart’s focus, in fact, is on these strangers (some kind, some terribly cruel, some supporters of the Taliban, some drug dealers, and some simple farmers) and less on himself.
  • I stumbled across the BBC's World Book Club while driving to a consulting gig, and the guest that episode was Harlan Coben, who talked about his novel, Six Years. I was so taken by h is talk that I read the novel. Six Years is about a college professor and the love of his life, who suddenly marries another man – or does she? It's entertaining, although it reminds me of the kind of thing I wrote in the 7th grade, and enjoyable, if you look past its limitations.
  • I re-read John Le Carré's The Spy Who Came in from the Cold after reading someone's opinion that it's the greatest spy novel ever. I reviewed it in more detail here. Le Carré's third novel is well written, stark and cold, and portrays both sides of the Cold War as amoral. It's very cynical and very bleak but also very effective.
  • Some of my Facebook friends were discussing "the great American novel," and one of them suggested William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! I realized that I had never read it, and so I decided to tackle it. Absalom, Absalom! is arguably the greatest novel ever about the American South and perhaps the greatest novel in all of American literature. The story of Thomas Sutpen's obsessive rise and fall is told by several imperfect narrators, all of whom contribute to the final version of the events, but it is never clear what we do and do not understand. Faulkner's rambling style is brilliant in places and maddening in others, but the overall impact is a stunning palimpsest of the South and the Civil War. It's not for everyone, though, as I found out when I mentioned reading it one of my neighbors, a very well-read woman who runs an AAUW book club. "You must be a glutton for punishment," she said.
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Saturday, September 6, 2014

Happy Birthday, Robert Pirsig

Robert Pirsig turns 86 today.  He was born on September 6, 1928, in Minneaapolis, Minnesota, and is best known for the travel narrative, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which is at once a journey of self-discovery, a trip through the writer’s past, a father–son journey, a motorcycle road trip, and much more.

Pirsig was a precocious child who nevertheless struggled as an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota before being expelled in 1945. He drifted aimlessly for several months before joining the Army and serving in Korea and then returning to school, where he received a B.A. in Eastern Philosophy in 1950. Pirsig enrolled in the University's School of Journalism two years later and, in 1953, became co-editor with Nancy Ann James, an undergraduate journalism student, of The Ivory Tower, part of the University's literary magazine. Pirsig and James married on May 10, 1954.

Pirsig returned to school in 1955 and received his MA in journalism in 1958. Between 1961 and 1963, Pirsig suffered a nervous breakdown and spent time in and out of psychiatric hospitals, where was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and clinical depression and was treated with electroconvulsive therapy. In the early 1960s, Pirsig began sending the manuscript for Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to publishers.  After receiving more than 120 rejection slips, the manuscript finally found its way to James Landis, an editor at William Morrow, who encouraged Pirsig to finish the book. Pirsig turned over the completed manuscript in 1973, and the book was published in the same year.

The book is remarkable on many levels, one of which is the story of a 17-day motorcycle trip of a father and his son from Minnesota to California.  It is also a journey into Pirsig’s own past and the story of his attempts to understand and make peace with that past. The book is punctuated with philosophical discussions, primarily about the notion of “quality,” an obsession of Pirsig’s, particularly in a world that seems so enthralled by “quantity.” Readers who like to tackle the big questions will enjoy the book, and many will find that it changes their lives.

Tragically, in 1979, Pirsig's son Chris, who figured prominently in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, was stabbed to death during a mugging outside the San Francisco Zen Center.

More Like That ...
  • Mark Richardson's Zen and Now: On the Trail of Robert Pirsig and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (2008) follows the author, a journalist who traveled on his motorcycle as closely along Pirsig’s original route as he could.  Like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Richardson's book is about many things: the trip itself and the cities and towns through which he traveled and how they compare now with what they were like when Pirsig visited them 40 years before; Pirsig himself and many of the characters from the book; Richardson’s own mid-life crisis; and the impact that Pirsig's book has had on his life.
  • Another intellectual motorcycle journey is taken by English professor Ted Bishop, who rode his motorcycle from the University of Alberta to the University of Texas and speculates about great literature along the way in Riding with Rilke: Reflections on Motorcycles and Books (2006).
  • Matthew B. Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work (2009) does not involve travel but is similar to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in its philosophical approach to everyday matters and the virtues of working with one’s own hands.
  • Garri Gallipoli’s The Tao of the Ride: Motorcycles and the Mechanics of the Soul (1999) combines meditations on motorcycling and Eastern spirituality.
  • Pirsig’s only other book is Lila: An Inquiry into Morals (1991).  While it was less well received than Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by most readers, some saw it as a more comprehensive expression of Pirsig’s philosophy, and it was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1992.
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Sunday, August 10, 2014

Six Books About ... World War I

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, the "war to end all wars." Triggered by the 1914 assassination of the heir of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and by Germany's invasion of Belgium, the war was not expected to last long. Instead, Europe suffered over four years of horror and misery and eventually endured over 37 million military and civilian casualties (over 16 million deaths and 20 million wounded).

Readers interested in more personal narratives about aspects of "the great war" have a number of titles to choose from, including travel narratives that take the authors to the war's battlefields many years after the conflict, memoirs about the war by those who experienced it first hand, and fictional accounts of those who fought in the war.

  • In The Trigger: Taking the Journey that Led the World to War (2014), Tim Butcher follows the path of Gavrilo Princip, whose assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 was the event that set World War I in motion. Butcher covered the 1990s Balkans conflict for the Daily Telegraph and is best-known for his 2009 travel narrative about the Congo, Blood River: The Terrifying Journey Through The World's Most Dangerous Country. In The Trigger, Butcher not only follows the journey of the relatively unknown assassin from his birthplace in the in western Bosnia to Sarajevo, where the assassination took place; he also looks at the history of Bosnia and his own memories of the horrors that he witnessed there in the 1990s.
  • In the summer of 1986, journalist and film critic Stephen O'Shea walked 450 miles of trenches from the seaside in Belgium to the border of France and Switzerland in order to discover the meaning of the First World War for himself and his generation. The result is an excellent book, Back to the Front: An Accidental Historian Walks the Trenches of World War I (1996). O’Shea's grandfather had fought in World War I, and O'Shea travels through the battlefields of Somme, Verdun, and Argonne and through lands dotted with cemeteries and monuments. His writing is poetic, descriptive, and sorrowful, as he contemplates the millions of lives needlessly lost through the incompetence of generals and poor battle planning and the deep scar left by the war on Western culture and the Western imagination.
  • Tony Wright’s engaging and easy-to-read Turn Right at Istanbul: A Walk on the Gallipoli Peninsula (2004) combines travel narrative and practical travel guide with a look at the stories of the young Australians who participated in the disastrous attack on the peninsula in World War I. On his journey, Wright carries a diary written by his great uncle George, who had landed at Gallipoli in 1915 and whose spirit follows Wright as he pauses before the graves and interacts with Turkish hosts and Australian travelling companions.
  • Nigel Jones, whose uncle was killed near Ypres during World War I, traveled to several battlefields in The War Walk: A Journey Along the Western Front (2004), a book that combines his own observations with anecdotes from some of the Great War’s last survivors. Jones does a particularly nice job of describing the major battles of the war as well as summarizing the strategies of the adversaries.
  • Robert Graves’s Good-Bye to All That: An Autobiography (1929) is one of the best, if not the best, memoirs of World War I. Graves, who would eventually write I, Claudius and other well-known works, joined the service in 21 and served first as a lieutenant, then as a captain in the Royal Welch Fusiliers. His book offers detailed descriptions of the horrors of trench warfare. In addition to his memories of the war, Graves writes about his childhood and his early post-war life, when he bids "good bye" to a way of life, the pre-war "old order".
  • The classic novel about World War I is Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1929), which tells the story of a German soldier at the front, but a more romantic novel related to “the war to end all wars” is Sebastian Japrisot’s engaging novel, A Very Long Engagement (2004), which involves a woman who refuses to believe that her fiancé has been killed in the war and searches for him through France in the 1920s. (The film based on the novel, which starred Audrey Tautou, is also called “A Very Long Engagement” and was nominated for a Golden Globe for best foreign language film.)

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Thursday, July 17, 2014

Re-Reading :: The City of Falling Angels

Obviously, many travel narratives focus on the destination, i.e., the place to which the author has traveled. The author may focus on the unforgettable beauty of a place or a combination of the appeal of a place and its people. The author may focus on the beauty in a wilderness, like a desert or one of the polar regions, or may find beauty in the crowds and bustle of a major city. The author may focus on the plants and animals of the destination or may focus on the destructive changes that threaten the beauty of a place.

A large number of travel narratives of this type focus on cities, and one of the most intriguing cities for travel writers has been Venice, the city in northeastern Italy that comprises over 100 islands separated by bridges and canals. One of the best recent travel narratives to look at Venice is John Berendt's The City of Falling Angels (2005), which I recently re-read for no particular reason.

The setup. John Berendt, who wrote the well-received Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1994), traveled to Venice in the days following a mysterious fire that destroyed the historic opera house, La Fenice. He visited in the off-season, as he says, "in order to enjoy the city without the crush of other tourists." The book follows the reaction of the locals to the fire and the investigations of Berendt and others into its causes. In the process, Berendt becomes fascinated by the city’s colorful characters: a master glassblower, Ezra Pound's widow, an heir to a grand Renaissance palace, the Rat Man of Treviso, a misunderstood poet who may or may not have committed suicide, as well as various contessas, marchesas, and other wealthy and famous individuals.

You’ll like the book if ...
  • You're in love with Venice. Berendt does a good job of providing an atmospheric and evocative portrait of Venice and its crumbling buildings, twisting passages, and seemingly endless canals. He loves the beauty of the city, too, and even invents "a game called 'photo roulette,' the object [of which] was to walk around the city taking photographs at unplanned moments — whenever a church bell rang or at every sighting of a dog or cat — to see how often, standing at an arbitrary spot, one would be confronted by a view of exceptional beauty. The answer — almost always." (Of course, Berendt also sees the dark side of this beautiful city, like the maggots that he sees breeding in the glue on the back of canvases in Peggy Guggenheim's art gallery.)
  • You like quirky characters, especially if they are wealthy or have royal blood. As one reader noted, Berendt's characters are "too colorful to be real." They squabble over everything from Ezra Pound's archives to the will of a gay poet, and Berendt portrays them with a good eye for detail. One character "spoke in a swooping, full-throated English drawl," while another "held forth in a manner more in the nature of oratory than conversation."
  • You have an interest in the various American and British expatriates who have lived in the city, like Robert Browning, Henry James, John Singer Sargent, and Ezra Pound. In fact, some of Berendt's references to paintings will have you running to Google to track down Sargent's portrait of Lisa Colt Curtis or Anders Zorn's of Isabella Stewart Gardner.
You won’t like the book if ...
  • You don't care much for gossip. One reader noted the "gossipy stories involving many of the locals (most of whom are actually expatriates and not native Venetians)" and concluded that "Not unlike Midnight it seems Berendt thinks his popularity comes with the inclusion of eccentrics. However, unlike Midnight there were too many stories that never quite came together in the end." In fact, one of most repeated criticisms of the book is that it bogs down in the details and provides little in the way of a coherent story.
  • You want more about Venice and less about the quirky characters who live there. There are a lot of characters — Berendt even provides an appendix listing people, organizations, and companies in the back of the book — and one might wish that the author had focused more on the city itself and less on the strange people who live there. In fact, Berendt himself says early in the book that his interest "was not Venice per se but people who live in Venice, which is not the same thing."
Notice how ... Berendt uses Italian words and phrases to make the reader feel more as if he or she were in Venice. Phrases like Non lo sapevamo ("We had no idea") and Com'era dov'era ("As it was, where it was") pepper the narrative. Berendt defines the Italian words when they first appear in the text and even includes a glossary of Italian words and phrases — from acqua alta ("hide tide") to vaporetto ("water bus") in the back of the book.

Appeal factors. Place and character are the obvious appeal factors here, although character takes precedence, given Berendt's obvious interest in the eccentric individuals in Venice. Berendt, in fact, begins to treat some of the places as if they were characters; for example, some of the buildings take on personalities and seem more like characters.

What's next?
  • In No Vulgar Hotel: The Desire and Pursuit of Venice (2007), Judith Martin (a.k.a. Miss Manners) writes both about “that miracle-from-the-swamp” and her own relationship with it as an self-professed “Venetophile.” Martin writes with a gentle wit and provides ample information on Venetian food, painting, and history as well as the city’s social life. Of course, she is Miss Manners, and so Martin spends a good part of the book advising the reader on how to interact with others and how to behave in general while traveling.
  • Marlena de Blasi wrote the four books about her life in Italy, and these begin with A Thousand Days in Venice (2002), the story of how she fell in love with and married a Venetian banker; the book is strong on romance and food.
  • The World of Venice (1974) is one of travel writer Jan Morris’s best known works and is a delightful, very personal guide to the culture and people of the “City of Water.”
  • The Venice Experiment: A Year of Trial and Error Living Abroad (2011) by Barry Frangipane and Ben Robbins recounts the year that Barry and his wife spent in Venice; they found plenty to laugh at in their encounters with the Italian bureaucracy and even in the high tides that threatened their ground- floor apartment.
  • Another very private look at Venice is Watermark (1992) by poet Joseph Brodsky, although this one is a bit more brooding.  Readers who liked the historical, cultural aspects of Berendt's book may enjoy Brodsky's brief but intense narrative.
  • A large number of works of fiction are set in Venice, including Henry James's The Wings of the Dove (1902), E.M. Forster's A Room with a View (1908), and two marvelous novellas, Daphne du Maurier’s chilling Don’t Look Now (1971) and Thomas Mann’s classic story of forbidden love, Death in Venice (1912). (All of these have been made into rather good films. "Don't Look Now" was directed by Nicholas Roeg and features one of the most frightening scenes in film history.) In addition, mystery readers should try Donna Leon's Commissario Brunetti series of crime novels set in Venice. Each of her books explores a specific aspect of Venetian life, beginning with Death at La Fenice (1992), in which a German conductor is found dead during the performance of “La Traviata” at the famous opera house that is also the focus of The City of Falling Angels, and Death in a Strange Country (1993), in which an American soldier’s body is found floating in one of the Venetian canals. Edward Sklepowich's Urbino Macintyre series focuses on an American expatriate writer living in Venice. There are now nine titles in the series, beginning with Death in a Serene City (1990), which links the murder of a Venetian laundress with the theft of the thousand-year-old body of Santa Teodora, and ends with The Veils of Venice (2009), which focuses on the stabbing death of a contessa.
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Sunday, July 13, 2014

Duncan Smith: Books, the Original Maker Spaces

In late June, I attended the American Library Association’s Annual Conference in Las Vegas.  On Saturday, I attended a readers’ advisory session entitled “Turning Books Into A Cool New Tool: RA Marketing in the Age of Maker Spaces,” sponsored by the Reference and User Services Association.

The opening speaker was Duncan Smith, Vice-President, Novelist, who encouraged public libraries to:

  • “Stick to the knitting,” by adding value to their communities “through supporting readers in their quest to become the people they seek to be.”
  • “Honestly assess our relationship with reading and why as a profession we seem to be running away from it.”
  • “Define the true product, the true outcome of what a real commitment to readers’ advisory service would mean for us as working librarians, our public libraries and the individuals and communities we serve.”

Duncan noted that public libraries struggle everyday to communicate their value, often by adopting new technologies, like 3-D printing and maker spaces.  He argued, however, that maker spaces are not really about 3D printers and innovation but about supporting “the creative acts of our customers.”

He also noted that “Maker spaces provide us with an opportunity to rethink reading” and quoted Marshall McLuhan, who said that “a new medium does not extinguish an old medium—it transforms it.”  For Duncan, the new technologies and new digital media give us an opportunity to explore how the book and the act of reading are being transformed.

Citing Laurel Tarrulli’s call to think about a new definition of pleasure reading, Duncan asked librarians “to be open to a wider definition of reading” and “to be open to new understandings of the impacts that reading has on our users.”  He argued that reading is less like a Xerox machine – i.e., passive – and more like a 3-D printer – i.e., “taking the raw material of the author and making something new.”

For Duncan, readers – like the people who use maker spaces – are engaged in creative acts.  As he noted, “When we read we are in fact making ourselves.  Books were and are the original maker spaces.”

Unfortunately, according to Duncan, “the overwhelming majority of our users (and our funders) do not” understand this aspect of reading: “unless we are engaged in some rather intense self-reflection and examination it is hard to tease out the contribution that books make to who we are.”  For example, “a Charlaine Harris reader might not see the connection between Sookie’s struggles to fight racism and prejudice in Bon Temps and her own activism in the areas of women’s rights and economic equality.”  On the other hand, a social worker may come to appreciate that his career choice was linked to reading The Grapes of Wrath when he was a 17 year old orphan.

For Duncan, “reading matters” because it helps us make ourselves who we are and reading ”should remain the cornerstone of our services and the anchor of the way we communicate our value to our funders and communities.”

Unfortunately, while books are the library’s brand (according to OCLC) and while the main reason users go to the library (according to the Pew Trust) is to borrow books, books are NOT (as Susan Benton from the Urban Libraries Council has pointed out) the business of the library.  Instead, as Duncan noted, the public library’s “business is the benefits that are derived from reading the books that are in our collections and on our shelves; our business is the creative acts that readers engage in with our books.”

Duncan then discussed what a future in which the public library is the heart of a reading community might look like and how librarians can create that community.  He looked at three specific areas:

  • Assessing how we are doing today in the area of readers’ advisory.
  • Expanding readers’ advisory services beyond the passionate few.
  • Moving out from behind the desk.

Duncan cited a recent survey by RUSA, Library Journal, and NoveList, which found that while 84 per cent of the respondents indicated that readers’ advisory was important or very important to their library, ”the decisions that we make every day about staff, collections, buildings, and resources [may not] reflect the centrality of [readers’ advisory] to our mission …”  For example, the survey found that:

  • 60 per cent of respondents taught themselves how to do readers’ advisory, which suggests to Duncan that libraries may not be truly committed to delivering quality readers’ advisory service.
  • Only 54 per cent of respondents felt that they were very effectively or effectively delivering readers’ advisory services.
  • 40 per cent of respondents said that they were not measuring their readers’ service at all.
  • Furthermore, the most common measure which was used by those who did measure readers’ advisory effectiveness was the usage of readers’ advisory resources, which doesn’t really measure the effectiveness of the service.

Duncan suggested that not much has changed since the beginning of research into readers’ advisory in 1992 by Ken Shearer.  He cited an example from one of Catherine Sheldrick Ross’s studies where a reader asked for help in finding a good book to read and received the following response:

    The librarian seemed caught off guard or surprised by the question. . . . she gave me a blank look and, appearing confused, asked me to repeat myself.

Duncan also cited a secret shopper study conducted in a major urban public library in the United States, which found that while 95 per cent of staff members offered to place a requested title on hold, 70 per cent of those staff members did not suggest another title to the reader.

Duncan then suggested what successful readers’ advisory service would look like.  Successful services, he said, would:

  • “Help readers find more of what the reader likes.”
  • “Support readers in understanding why they like what they like.”
  • “Encourage readers to see the connection between their reading and their lives.” 
  • “Help readers share their experiences with others.”

To achieve this level of success, Duncan argued that public libraries need to first move readers’ advisory services “beyond the passionate few” and suggested a model for assessing “how effectively a staff member will deliver [readers’ advisory] services based on two things—their book knowledge and the commitment to customer service.”


  • High commitment to customer service, high book knowledge.  Duncan suggested that this is the epitome of readers’ advisory service but that not every staff member will be able to reach this quadrant.  Instead, he said, we need “to create opportunities for all of our staff to be successful at providing some level of” readers’ advisory service.
  • High commitment to customer service, low book knowledge.  For Duncan, staff in this quadrant can use readers’ advisory tools and resources to add to their people skills.
  • Low commitment to customer service, high book knowledge.  Duncan argued that “We need to find a way for these shy people to share their book knowledge without needing to interact directly with users. Creating book displays, editing a e-newsletter, or responding to form-based RA queries might be the answer here.”
  • Low commitment to customer service, low book knowledge.  Staff members, according to Duncan, should stay out of this quadrant.


To achieve success in readers’ advisory, Duncan also recommended going “where the readers are … and that is not at the desk.”  As he noted, “When we talk about [readers’ advisory], we tend to focus on face-to-face interactions and programs.”  However, as the Pew Trust found, nearly three fourths of users said that they browsed the shelves looking for books to read – rather than interacting with library staff.  Duncan reminded us that the overwhelmingly majority of library holds are placed remotely by users.

In other words, according to Duncan, we need to “balance our services to more effectively respond to the ways in which readers use us,” and that means that “we might need to shift more of our focus to self-directed and digital [readers’ advisory].”

Duncan then suggested a model for meeting reader needs based on two axes: “the amount of time users have for us and the level of engagement they want to have with us.”

  • High touch, lots of time.  According to Duncan, “For the readers in this quadrant—face to face and book oriented programs work.”
  • High touch, no time.  “For the readers in this quadrant, who are probably visiting our digital branches as much as our physical facility, we might provide e-newsletter services, form-based [readers’ advisory], catalog enrichment, doing [readers’ advisory] from our Facebook pages, or adding other reader oriented content there.”
  • Low touch, lots of time.  “These are the browsers in our user group and how we arrange our collections, displays, and shelf-talkers are all ways we can support their discovery of new authors, titles and genres.”
  • Low touch, no time.  “For these harried users, posters and reading maps, and bringing [readers’ advisory] to self-check might be solutions.”

Duncan ended by suggesting that if public libraries “become intentional about helping readers maximize the benefits of the creative reading acts in which they are engaged,” our users “might realize that the library is in the inspiration business and that is it an essential part of their community’s inspiration infrastructure. … Until every funder and every resident of the communities we serve know these two truths, we have work to do.”