Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Update 2: A Year of Reading the Med

Update 1 of this adventure highlighted some real gems of Mediterranean literature.  Round 2, however, was more of a mixed bag, which is a polite way of saying I slogged through some stinkers so that you don't have to. 

ISRAEL: A Pigeon and a Boy by Meir Shalev  ** ½
Winner of the Brenner Prize (Israel) and several other European awards from an internationally-acclaimed author.  With all due respect to the author and to the literary establishment that heaped glowing reviews onto this book, I need to tell you from the get-go that it’s going to be hard for me to describe this book without sniggering.  I do agree with one professional reviewer who call the book “unforgettable”.  Spoiler alert in effect as from this point.  Yair is a short dark muscular boy born into a tall blonde family, and we suspect something is amiss from the beginning.  Written from the view point of Yair as an adult in the throes of his own marital turmoil, our attention is focused on the story of a pigeon handler during Israel’s war of independence, who is (queue menacing music… dah! dah! dah!) a short dark muscular boy.  All that remains is to figure out how his mother met the pigeon boy, and what could be more straightforward than a pigeon boy meeting (drum roll, cymbal clash and pregnant pause…) a pigeon girl!  The pigeon boy decides they will not have sex before he goes off to war because of his belief that he would not return alive if they did.  But hang on a minute … we know from the beginning of the story that the pigeon boy dies in battle, torn to shreds by snipers’ bullets.  How could the boy possibly be Yair’s father, you wonder?  Well you have clearly forgotten about the pigeons, my friends.  As the boy lies dying alone in a small monastery, he manages to… well, er, uh… expel and collect his sperm in a small glass vial that he attaches to the leg of his champion carrier pigeon.  The pigeon manages to lift off with its precious burden and flies bravely between whizzing bullets to the pigeon girl at the zoo, who understands immediately that the bird’s return means that a) the pigeon boy is dead and b) that the vial contains his sperm.  (As an aside, does this remind anyone else of the Monty Python sketch, “what is the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow?”) Scrambling madly through the zoo lab in search for a spoon and a syringe, she flops on her back and inseminates herself.  The rest of the story unfolds with relative ease.  It’s too bad, really, since the book is otherwise well written, the story lines are interesting, and the characters are vibrant and engaging.  I had intended to give it a 3-star rating up until this (dare-I-say-it?) seminal moment in the story.  Alas, after such revelations, I found it hard to take seriously anymore. 

LEBANON: An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine  **
Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and National Book Award.  The story flows from the memories of 70-year-old Aaliya, an endearing feisty blue-haired heroine who dared to live a modern and independent life in the constrictive society of 1970s civil-war Lebanon.  Her salvation from both the war and the society that condemns her lifestyle is literature.  The novel combines all the ingredients needed to create an appealing story for modern women and lovers of literature and history; me, me, and me.  But I didn’t love it.  After a beautiful start (and I recommended it enthusiastically to a few friends after a promising first quarter), the book gets bogged down in Aaliya’s literary reviews and ponderings to the point that the plot disappears completely and we feel like we’ve accidentally wandered into an academic treatise where the author tries to dazzle us with the breadth and depth of her knowledge.  Towards the end it was simply a painful slog to finish. 

MEDITERRANEAN overview: On the Shores of the Mediterranean by Eric Newby ***
Fans of travel literature should feel their hearts skip a beat with excitement when they see the name Eric Newby, author of the classic works A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush and The Last Grain Race.  Newby sailed a 4-masted schooner from the UK to Australia in 1938, climbed the Nuristan mountains of Afghanistan, was a prisoner of war, escaped from his concentration camp and was recaptured, returned later to marry the Slovenian woman who hid him during his escape, and spent some years working with his father in a women’s high-fashion business.  For most of his career, when he wasn’t traveling himself, he served as travel editor of The Observer.  With such credentials, it’s impossible not to be enthralled by his sometimes hysterical recollections of traveling around the Mediterranean basin, clockwise from Naples, in the 1980s.  In the acknowledgements in the front of the book, Newby thanks Colonel Muammar Kaddafi for hosting them during their jaunt through Libya.  While some passages are dry and dip too deeply into the historical landscape for my tastes, the book as a whole is a fantastic read and is an essential companion to the fiction from each country that I’ve been reading.

MEDITERRANEAN overviews, continued:  The Middle Sea: A History of the Mediterranean by John Julius Norwich ****, and The Pillars of Hercules *1/2  by Paul Theroux.

The Middle Sea is essential reading, the bible of all things Mediterranean, and despite the comprehensive historical coverage, very engaging and readable.  After reading Norwich and Newby, The Pillars of Hercules by Theroux struck me as the personal ramblings of an often poorly-informed traveler content to offer up summaries of a place based on meeting a few local characters in a bar.  His goal is to write a book and cover as much ground as possible as quickly as possible.  Perhaps this approach is meant to offer a snapshot in time and many critics loved the book.  I found it annoying and didn’t learn anything useful or interesting about the Med from it.  It’s all about him and his insights. Pass.


Ellen @ The Cynical Sailor said...

I know I should be sorry that you read some absolute plonkers this time around, but reading your reviews makes me hope you read some other really bad books next. They're hysterical. Especially the explanation of the plot of the pigeon boy book. It almost makes me want to read it just because it sounds so bad.

Sailing Mareda said...

Thanks Ellen. I'm sure I went over-the-top with the review, but it was born of frustration because the book was very good up until it just got plum silly !