‘The Road to Oxiana’

The Road to OxianaThe Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Recommended, if you are 1) an anglophobe and 2) keen on descriptions of architecture.

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Which is to say, this book is not for everyone. His intended audience, I am sure, was more erudite than me. I needed a dictionary to understand much of how he described the lonely ruins he visited — in part because he employs more than a few archaic spellings. And there were plenty of British 1930s-isms that were over my head. Still, I am a sucker for these sorts of things. I sometimes entertain the desire to have lived in that time, knowing some of those people. These thoughts, warmly persistent like nostalgia, quickly dissipate when I reflect on the relatively dismal state of medical science and public hygiene in the 1930s. And the probable fact that this literate generation of snaggle-toothed Brits, Robert Byron, Patrick Fermor, Cyril Connolly, Norman Douglas and so on, were lecherous fiends.

At least there is no shortage of such books. In the introduction, the writer Paul Fussell writes that it sometimes seemed “that in the twenties and thirties virtually no one stayed home.” My favorite remains Mr. Fermor, whose “A Time for Gifts” is perhaps the best of the lot.

Toward the end of “Road,” Mr. Byron makes a comment that allows me to flatter myself that he and I would have got along, as we picked nits out of our flea bags and cracked jokes about Horace’s dirtier poems under the Central Asian night sky. In a paragraph where he mocks any advice for travelers that doesn’t allow for what books to take on a trip, he imagines endowing a prize for the “sensible traveler.”

£10,000 for the first man to cover Marco Polo’s outward route reading three fresh books a week, and another £10,000 if he drinks a bottle of wine a day as well.

Present circumstances perhaps make that particular route untenable. But the idea is one worth exploring. May I recommend a tiny plaza off the Carrer de l’Argenteria in Barcelona?

Ask for a bottle of the house red, a cutting board of cheeses and a plate of pimientos de padron.

Ask for a bottle of the house red, a cutting board of cheeses and a plate of pimientos de padron.


Triumph of the Will

Remember, no matter what the self-help books say, the research suggests that willpower isn’t a skill.

via Ego Depletion « You Are Not So Smart.

‘The Violins Of Saint Jacques’

The Violins Of Saint JacquesThe Violins Of Saint Jacques by Patrick Leigh Fermor

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

To his fans, recommended.

It is the story of a woman who goes to the Caribbean to be governess or whatever for a wealthy French aristocrat, and basically what happens is the oldest daughter of the family runs away to marry the son of a government official, who for political (and other) reasons the aristocrat/father finds detestable. Pretty mundane stuff, except for the extraordinary climax of the book, which is itself preceded by a dramatic chase: the governess, the oldest son (who is in love with her, by the way) and the butler all go off in different directions to find the daughter. I do not think it is a spoiler to say that, no way, will you see the ending coming. (Oo-o-of.)

It is a little bit of a stretch, literarily speaking, as Fermor tells most of the story through the eyes of an elderly French woman. But you will forgive the occasionally stilted moments, because all the familiar Fermor is here: magnificent character sketches, seductive scenery, alluring history and all of it told with the usual, weighty wit and charm.

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‘Bonfire of the Vanities’

The Bonfire Of The VanitiesThe Bonfire Of The Vanities by Tom Wolfe

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sorry, sorry, I know I am 25 years late, but: This is excellent.

I am not sure I was ready in 1987 to read Wolfe, whose swollen bursts of ellipses-ridden inner monologue can grow to be tiresome, if not outright painful, to digest. But the story of “Bonfire,” dipped in the slick, stylized honey of New York, went down nice and smooth now, in my near-dotage.

If you can pick the ellipses out of your teeth, the balance is so rewarding, so compelling that you will find yourself using cliches like “it’s a page-turner” when talking to friends. But it is, it drives you to keep going, to put off whatever so that you can the end of a chapter. And to nervously check your momentum as you fear missing your train stop.

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My Favorite Passage From Fermor

Some public holiday was in progress – could it have been the feast of St. John the Baptist which marks the summer solstice — and the waterfront was crowded with celebrating citizens in liquefaction. The excitement of a holiday and the madness of a heat wave hung in the air. The stone flags of the water edge, where Joan and Xan Fielding and I sat down to dinner, flung back the heat like a casserole with the lid off. On a sudden, silent, decision we step down fully dressed into the sea carrying iron table a few yards out and then our three chairs, on which, up to our waists in cool water, we sat around the neatly laid tabletop, which now seemed by magic to be levitated three inches above the water. The waiter, arriving a moment later, gazed with surprise at the empty space on the quay; then, observing us with a quickly masked flicker of pleasure, he stepped unhesitatingly into the sea, advanced waist deep with a butler’s gravity, and, saying nothing more than “Dinner-time,” placed our meal before us — three beautifully grilled kephali, piping hot, and with their golden brown scales sparkling.

via p. 42, Fermor, Patrick Leigh (1958). Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese. New York: New York Review of Books.

‘The Scientists’

The Scientists: A History of Science Told Through the Lives of Its Greatest InventorsThe Scientists: A History of Science Told Through the Lives of Its Greatest Inventors by John Gribbin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Recommended, heartily.

It sounds like hubris to think you could write a book that, basically, tells the whole broad story of science in one go. But here it is, and it is worth reading.

Mr. Gribbin’s explanations of dizzying series of innovations are always clear and concise. But his strength is a perspicacious gift for knowing what to put in and what to leave out, and when to bind the threads of his story together more tightly. Indeed, this was the most satisfying part. Time after time, Gribbin would seed his narrative with a detail that would sprout in the succeeding pages into a delightful coincidence. Time after time, I would slap my hand to my forehead, then sink back into my chair (or subway bench) in a weary exultation of edification.

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‘The Road to Disunion, Volume II’

The Road to Disunion, Volume II: Secessionists Triumphant Volume II: Secessionists Triumphant, 1854-1861The Road to Disunion, Volume II: Secessionists Triumphant Volume II: Secessionists Triumphant, 1854-1861 by William W. Freehling

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Delightful-er, if just as dense as the first volume.

You simply cannot find a better book on the subject, and I would heartily recommend this (and the preceding volume) to anyone with even passing interesting in antebellum America. If tunneling through 1,000-some pages  does not sound appealing, settle for Volume II, which does an admirable, amiable job of standing alone. Freehling is meticulous and thorough, but he also has a lively wit and can distill complicated webs of thought and action to simple principles.

What made a lasting impression on me was Freehling’s treatment of the philosophical weakness endemic to the Peculiar Institution. Obviously, slavery is bad. But what I never considered before is that ground it rested on, from the Southern point of view, was rotten. You cannot justify slavery in class terms because you threaten poor white laborers. You cannot justify it in racial terms because so many large farms and plantations were managed wholly by slaves. And you cannot justify it in religious terms because it is so thoroughly incompatible with any interpretation of Christianity. What the most extreme Southrons could not have known is that their zeal for slavery had only one logical conclusion.

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See also:

Although you shot at me twice before I left you, I did not want to hear of your being hurt, and am glad you are still living.

via Letters of Note: To My Old Master.

‘QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter’

QED: The Strange Theory of Light and MatterQED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter by Richard P. Feynman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s funny; it really is. To wit, Feynman writes: “You see, the chemists have a complicated way of counting: instead of saying ‘one, two, three, four, five protons,’ they say, ‘hydrogen, helium, lithium, beryllium, boron.’ ”


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First You Read It, Then You Do It

What Shat That?: A Pocket Guide to Poop IdentityWhat Shat That?: A Pocket Guide to Poop Identity by Matt Pagett

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This should be charming, or diverting, but it mostly is a mishmash of mangled sentences and sophomoric humor. And afterward, you won’t be able to identify anything other than the reason for your wasted time. Thankfully, it does not take much longer to read it than it does to do it.

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