The Great Railway Bazaar : By Train through Asia by Paul Theroux

great_railway_bazaar_475hFor four months in the early 1970s, the author traveled the rails from London to Japan via at least a dozen different countries, and then returned through the former Soviet Union.  His method was at first cut and dried, or so he thought - making the initial leg of the journey using the fabled Orient Express.

Things only get interesting, and sometimes harrowing.  There are language barriers and discomfort.  Some train compartments touch on luxury, although as the story progresses, these seem the exception.  Theroux has to wrangle with governmental officials, lackadaisical rail employees, irritable bunk mates, and the mind-numbing monotony of cruising a never-ending landscape (the chapter about traversing Siberia captures this all too well.)  More often than not, he is shocked by the variety of cultural practices he comes across, but as a determined traveler, Theroux sees these through, and generally does well with the unavoidable tedium in each country.

The Great Railway Bazaar came out almost 40 years ago - as such, it helps if the reader has some knowledge of that time period.  Vestiges of the Vietnam War were scarily in evidence when Theroux visited that country, and Japan was flush with economic possibilities and excesses.  Afghanistan and Pakistan were (surprise) still difficult to navigate back then, although I think Theroux would have a worse time of it now.

Paul Theroux is still writing; his latest, The Last Train to Zona Verde, came out this year.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant edited by Jenni Ferrari-Adler

eggplantThis essay collection focuses on solitary eating.  It’s what the hapless diner does when they’re alone and hunger hits, whether they have ample means for elaborate meals or are pinching pennies with Ramen noodles.  Regardless of circumstance or culinary knowledge, quite a few of the contributors go for the familiar, the comfort food, the easily prepared route.  Then there are others who have their own fastidious cravings, and are willing to endure the prep work for one particular dish.

Ferrari-Adler starts us out with her own essay about her first bout of aloneness as a graduate school student during a cold Michigan winter, and how eating solo was so unlike what she had grown up with and experienced.  Her coping mechanism?  Working up the nerve to invite others over and then find out their solitary dining secrets – and eventually compiling the essays that make up this book.

In one of the first essays, Ann Patchett writes of her own exile to winter-lashed Provincetown, MA where a steady diet of oatmeal and saltines kept up her going in a town emptied of tourists and business.  Haruki Murakami has a short interlude on his early obsession with spaghetti.  Nora Ephron briefly shines on the attributes of the potato; Jeremy Jackson on the virtues of canned black beans.  We encounter sushi love and asparagus overkill, gloriously cream-infused sauces, and picky solitary diners in restaurants – and how they become a fascination.  The editor also (thankfully) includes M.F.K. Fisher and her thoughts on eating by herself when invitations from others are slim.

Some of the writers are well-known, some not.  The essays are occasionally self-indulgent, but also funny.  There’s plenty here to make one hungry and start scouring the pantry on some rainy day in the near future when everyone else is gone and the only recourse is to eat alone.

Oh, and there are recipes.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

Piano Lessons by Noah Adams

What is it like to start playing the piano at age fifty-one? Noah Adams, longtime broadcast voice for NPR, relates his year of pianojuggling career and new hobby when he puts some serious money into a new Steinway upright. His goal is to play Robert Schumann’s “Träumerei” for his wife at Christmas.

His is not the “one lesson a week” approach. Adams uses a variety of methods to tame the 88 keys including computer programs, seminars, and hardcore advice from friends and professionals. His long tenure as co-host of All Things Considered has allowed him contacts to all types of people including pianists, and he is quick to glean their wisdom.

Along his journey from middle C to proficiency, Adams also endured setbacks, drops in inspiration, and then some powerful encouragement. Perhaps the most interesting and interacting section of the book was his participation in a week-long piano workshop in Vermont run by family members out of a huge 42 room house. There, he learns from a different person for each lesson and manages to struggle through a difficult piece for recital time. We won’t find out however, until the very end, whether the infamous “Traumerei” will elude him.

I liked Adams’ style in Far Appalachia and I liked this book as well. He finds stories out of the most mundane of events and makes them of interest, often with a dash of droll humor. The book came out in 1996, so some things in the book seemed dated, but that’s a small issue.  The tidbits about the history of the piano add to the book’s worth. Frankly, reading Piano Lessons made me want to play the limited partial pieces that I struggle through from time to time, and maybe try to learn “Träumerei” again – it’s been years.

After reading this one, you might like The Piano Shop on the Left Bank.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change by Al Gore

futureIf you think the title of the book sounds boring, I agree!  I expected it to be a good way to become better informed – but deadly dull.  So I planned to slog through about five pages a day, buying a copy so that I could read it over a period of several months without having to worry about library due dates.  To my surprise, I was never bored for one minute and spent all of my reading time on the book until I finished it, not even once putting it down to pick up a lighter read.  And I’m definitely not a political junkie, a scientist, or an economist!  Even though a few parts of the book were over my head, Gore is generally successful in making complex topics understandable.  Also, the book isn’t as long as it may appear; the text ends on page 374 (the remaining pages include a nine page bibliography and almost 150 pages of bibliographical notes, showing that Gore based his book on extensive research as well as on his years of experience in government.)

Although Gore is, of course, a Democrat, he finds problems with both political parties, and most of the book would be of interest to readers of various political beliefs.

The Future is an important book for anyone wanting to understand current trends and to read a prediction, based on these trends, of the not-too-distant future. As the title says, it offers a global perspective on six broad topics:

  • The economy (including outsourcing and the trend towards use of robots and 3D printers)
  • Electronic communications (including the internet, artificial intelligence, and privacy concerns)
  • The balance of political, economic, and military power (including China’s power in the future)
  • Unsustainable growth (population growth, the water shortage, loss of topsoil)
  • Scientific technologies (including developments in the medical field and the ethical questions involved)
  • Ecology (including global warming)

Overall themes are the impact of corporate money on politics and the United States’ difficulties in solving the nation’s problems and providing world leadership.

While all of the topics are related, it would definitely be possible to read only the chapters of most interest to you.

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)

Drop Dead Healthy by A. J. Jacobs

Jacobs, editor at large of Esquire magazine, decided to become “as healthy as humanly possible.”  At the age of forty-one, hedrop dead was in pretty good health, but he called his body shape “a python-that-swallowed-a-goat,” and he was sure that he’d benefit from some lifestyle changes.  In an attempt to discover the prevailing medical views on healthy living, he did a lot of reading and consulted a variety of experts, including his eccentric aunt, who examined every inch of his apartment for toxins.  He made a 53-page to-do list and even completed a lot of the items on it.  This included a variety of workouts, including one very embarrassing pole dancing class in which he was the only man.  He even wrote his book while walking on a treadmill!

Drop Dead Healthy includes some useful health tips, especially in the appendices.  His studies and lifestyle changes worked for him.  During the year Jacobs lost 16 pounds, and he “can now run a mile in less than seven minutes as opposed to not at all.”  However, he warns, “This book is for informational and entertainment purposes.  I have a B.A. after my name, not an M.D.  Talk to a doctor before following any health tips in this book.  And consult your spouse before moving to Okinawa.”

This is quick, entertaining reading, especially if you’re trying to improve your own health – or to become motivated to do so.

I also enjoyed Jacobs’ earlier books The Know-It-All and The Year of Living Biblically.  For the first one, he read the Encyclopedia Britannica in its entirety, sharing with us some of the interesting facts he learned as well as some of his own experiences.  In the second, he read the entire Bible, consulted experts from a variety of Christian and Jewish traditions, and attempted to learn the Bible by living it.  He is not religious (“Jewish in the same way the Olive Garden is Italian”), but he now tries to observe the Sabbath, to be grateful, and to avoid gossiping.

Choose the book of most interest to you at the moment, and, once you’ve sampled Jacobs’ writing, you may want to read the other two!

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)

Listening for Madeleine by Leonard S. Marcus

madeleineThroughout her long writing career, Madeleine L’Engle made the acquaintance and friendship of many.  Before she was ever published, she turned the heads of relatives and friends alike with her uniqueness.

Listening to Madeleine is a collection of essays from her numerous contacts.  What made the author of A Wrinkle in Time tick?  Through these memories, you get Madeleine in all her guts and glory.  She was a writer very much in control of her writing voice, and someone who wrote for adult and the younger reader.  A free-spirited person, she nonetheless was religious and affiliated herself with the Episcopal church early on.

The content is arranged in sections – L’Engle as writer, matriarch, mentor, and friend.  The first section, entitled “Madeleine in the Making”, concerns her childhood and college years.  This was the most eye-opening to me – you find out the background of her parents.  I didn’t realize that her mother’s side had such a strong connection to Jacksonville, Florida.  Her father had strong New York roots; both parents came from privilege, if not money, and Madeleine had a lively if disjointed upbringing.

This is a good collection of reminiscences, although I think you have to be a hardcore fan of L’Engle to appreciate it.  

(William Hicks, Information Services)




The Sacred Language of Trees by A. T. Mann

Trees have occupied our imaginations since the dawn of time.  Their very shape and presence bring to mind things largertrees than life – a spiritual world and connectedness with the universe at large.

This book is a survey of trees and their mythology through the ages.  In it, the author explores the imagery of trees in a smorgasbord of world religions including Jewish, Christian, Hindu, Native American, and others. He includes ancient myths of the Greek, Norse, and Celtic varieties as well.

Mann also discusses the psychological aspects of trees and how they figured into the work of Carl Jung. 

The book has a certain New Age style to it, but it’s worth reading if you have an interest in world myth and folklore, or just like trees and ponder their significance to us.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage by Hugh Brewster

The Titanic sailed and sank in 1912, a hundred years ago.  This book focuses on the first-class passengers on that ship, most of whose names mean nothing to the modern reader.  At that time, however, they were “the Gilded Age masters of the universe.”  The voyage was not only a means of transportation but a social time, since most of the first-class passengers knew at least some of their fellow travelers or, at the very least, had mutual acquaintances.  They were carefully separated from the lower-class passengers onboard; first-class passengers even held separate church services.

These wealthy passengers came from many backgrounds, some having inherited wealth and others having earned their money through hard work.  They included America’s wealthiest man, John Jacob Astor IV, and his young, pregnant wife, as well as a famous fashion designer, a well-known artist, a military advisor to Teddy Roosevelt and later to William Howard Taft, a British journalist who exposed sex slavery (yes, that evil existed 100 years ago), a tennis champion, and the heroine of the disaster, who was later called “the unsinkable Molly Brown.”

The book tells the story of the voyage, of the lapses in judgment which led to the disaster, and of the tragic deaths of about two-thirds of the passengers.  It also highlights the lifestyles and life histories of the first-class passengers. Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage is a scholarly telling – but also a readable one.

Brewster has edited, published, and written books about the Titanic for twenty-five years.

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)

Green Grows the City by Beverley Nichols

Beverley Nichols was fairly well-known in his time as a renaissance man of letters – he wrote novels, plays, and was a journalist, among other things.  What propelled him to fame in the 1930s was his trilogy of books about a fictional village called Allways and his gardening endeavors at his cottage.

Green Grows the City  takes place after his sojourn there - Nichols was in need of a privacy that became impossible after the popularity of his Allways books.  This one chronicles his move to a house in the suburbs of London and his gradual creation of a new garden in an atrocious triangular-shaped yard.

You have to really like gardens and landscaping to fully appreciate this book, but Nichols’ sense of humor is worth it when getting through the more green thumb-centric chapters.  His depiction of a nosy neighbor is priceless.  Her property borders with his for just a brief length, but she is hyperly aware of every new thing he adds or builds, and is not afraid to let her opinions known.  The character of Gaskin, his housekeeper, quietly provides a needed backbone to all the zaniness required to change an ugly yard into a thing of beauty.

To his credit, Nichols was (at least in this book) a cat person.  The chapter entitled “Rose and Cavalier” is worth reading for any cat lover.  There’s a sad part here that I have to say moved me to tears, but you’ll have to read it.

My favorite paragraph was early on in the first chapter (page 16, to be exact), and I will quote it in its entirety:

“I had a hunger for green.  I was lonely for the sound of trees by night.  I longed for the feel of turf beneath my feet, instead of the eternal pavement.  Even if it were only a narrow strip of sooty grass, it would be resilient and alive, and would give me some of its own life.”

This copy is a 2006 reprint of the original 1939 edition.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

My Paddle to the Sea by John Lane

My Paddle to the Sea chronicles a canoe trip by the author down the series of streams in South Carolina that begin close to Spartanburg and finish as the Santee River, which empties itself into the Atlantic Ocean.  The author manages this voyage with the help of two friends, who join him on different stretches of the trip.

Like Noah Adams did in Far Appalachia, Lane comments on local history as he connects to the living body that is the river – all of its beauty and danger rolled together.  The river, he discovers, tells new stories every new day, and somehow manages to keep its wildness amid development and encroachment.

Our voyagers start their trek in the early springtime of 2009, which unfortunately for them means a fair deluge of rain for the first few days.  The extra precipitation means more challenges, and the author reflects back on the tragedies of an earlier whitewater trip to Costa Rica as he and his friends navigate their way – through swamps and meanders, around dams – to the coast.

They encounter some fair weather, and lots of characters on the river, kindly and not.  There is more than one reference to Deliverance and they do meet some occasionally dicey acquaintances.  Lane’s canoe companions, particularly Venable, are worthy of a book themselves.

The author also muses over the ecology of this river system, and how its man-made modifications have changed the life and fortunes of those that live around it.

This book not a rapid page turner, but a meditation of a read.  It’s best savored slowly.

(William Hicks, Information Services)


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