The calendar is on month 12 of the 2014 Century of Books, and much as I wish I could write pages and pages on each of the books already read but yet to be reviewed, I’m afraid it’s not going to happen. I need to start the new year with a clean slate, so this coming week-before-Christmas will see a whole slew of briefest-of-assessment round-up posts. Some of the books noted will be re-reads in the future, and I’ll have to see if I can do better then.
My rating: 5/10.
“The fascinating true experiences of an American Ambassador’s daughter in a strange, exotic land.”
An American ambassador’s teenage daughter records in earnest detail her experiences of two years in India in the early 1950s. The writing is plodding but the subject has its moments of interest, with much reference to Nehru and Ghandi, and Miss Bowles finds her stride in the later chapters as she stays behind for a few months after the rest of her family’s return to America. Flying solo, the author visits the homes of Indian school friends and does a bit of mild personal research into social programs.
From the back cover, “A Personal Message from Cynthia Bowles”:
I went to India as a young, teen-age girl anxious not so much for knowledge as for the happiness and security which I was reluctantly leaving behind me in Connecticut. Consequently this is not a book of facts and figures. It is the story of what I did in India, of the places I visited, and of the people I came to know. I write because I wish to share, as best I can with you, my experiences in this strange and wonderful land.
And that snippet from young Cynthia tells you all you need to know about her writing style. Worthy topics of discussion aside, a bit of a bore, really. I doubt I’ll reread this one.
In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin ~ 1977. This edition: Picador, 1979. Paperback. ISBN: 0-330-25644-0. 186 pages.
My rating: 8.5/10
The inveterate traveller, raconteur and ceaseless self-inventor Bruce Chatwin burst onto the travel writing scene in 1977 with this fantastical “documentation” of a quest to the farthest reaches of Patagonia, inspired by a childhood fascination with a strip of mysterious preserved skin in his maternal grandmother’s curio cabinet:
The brontosaurus turns out to be in actuality a mylodon, a giant ice-age era ground sloth, and the specimen in question apparently came (theorizes Chatwin) from a collection of bones, skin and fossilized sloth droppings boxed up for shipment to the British Museum at the end of the 19th Century.
This book defies classification.
Chatwin refused to call himself a travel writer, though his best known books, In Patagonia and its equally quixotic Australia-set counterpart, 1987’s The Songlines, are superficially recordings of actual journeys. Chatwin embellished his tales with a goodly dollop of dramatic invention on occasion, though they read like the cold-sober truth. The many narrative gaps perhaps signal the bits of pure invention, or, just as probably, select bits of actual experience denied the author’s readers for reasons of his own.
Presented in ninety-seven sections, from one-line observations to chapter-length expositions, In Patagonia hits a number of high points, one of which most memorably is a multi-faceted examination of the legendary outlaw triumvirate of Robert LeRoy Parker, Harry Longabaugh, and Etta Place. The first two are perhaps more famously known by their noms-de-guerre: Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid.
Did they really die in a hail of bullets in Bolivia, as pop culture would have it? Chatwin explores the possibilities of their fates in intriguing detail, in between sharply crafted odes to the impossible and brutal beauties of the lands he travels through, and vignette-encounters with the real and historical inhabitants.
Recommended, with the caveat that the best bits may quite well be fiction.
Chasing the Monsoon by Alexander Frater ~ 1990. This edition: Penguin, 1991. Paperback. ISBN: 0-14-010516-6. 273 pages.
My rating: 10/10
Back in September I read and later glowingly reviewed Alexander Frater’s Beyond the Blue Horizon. I am most pleased to report that Chasing the Monsoon, written four years later, is equally as excellent.
Here is the publisher’s description:
The fascinating and revealing story of Frater’s journey through India in pursuit of the astonishing Indian summer monsoon.
On 20th May the Indian summer monsoon will begin to envelop the country in two great wet arms, one coming from the east, the other from the west. They are united over central India around 10th July, a date that can be calculated within seven or eight days.
Alexander Frater aims to follow the monsoon, staying sometimes behind it, sometimes in front of it, and everywhere watching the impact of this extraordinary phenomenon. During the anxious period of waiting, the weather forecaster is king and a joyful period ensues: there is a period of promiscuity, and scandals proliferate.
Frater’s journey takes him to Bangkok and a cowboy town on the Thai-Malaysian border to Rangoon and Akyab in Burma (where the front funnels up between the mountains and the sea). His fascinating narrative reveals the exotic, often startling, discoveries of an ambitious and irresistibly romantic adventurer.
This doesn’t even begin to describe the scope of this highly likeable book, which is part memoir, part ode to his beloved parents, and part better-than-conventional travelogue.
Frater writes rings around such plodders (by comparison) as Eric Newby, and he comes off as nicer and more relatably human than the über-snarky Paul Theroux, and much more reliable than the skittish Bruce Chatwin.
Frater is now firmly on my list of writers whose new-to-me books I will purchase without even peeking at the contents.
Highly recommended for those of you who like this sort of thing, especially if you have a high tolerance for occasional (and always pertinent) inclusion of statistics and arcane terminology.
For a quick teaser, here’s page 1: