Tag Archives: Guatemala

105. Holiday Highlights…

About nine months ago I had the misfortune to spent five weeks travelling around Central America with nothing to do but eat, sleep, drink, tube down rivers, jump off bridges, see sites, meet great people and lie in hammocks in various youth hostels reading.


It’s a hard life…

I have just discovered the notes I took from the books I read during this time, mainly in my first stop, the world-class Zephyr Lodge in Semuc Champey, Guatemala.

Friends, hammocks, adventure, sun, cheap drinks, a river, the board game Risk, and a shelf full of books to read: what more could one possibly want from life?


The Moral Landscape: how science can determine human values,’ Sam Harris

First up, a deep and fairly controversial non-fiction book, (of which this selection is mainly comprised, I notice), from atheist Sam Harris who sets out a vehement attack on the belief that atheism leads to immorality and relativism, and that only religion can tell us what is right and what is wrong. Some interesting statistics:

“…while there are probably no more than a hundred serial killers in the United States at any moment, there are probably three million psychopaths, (about 1 percent of the population)…”

(And for more on the fascinating subject of how these psychopaths may, in fact, be running the world today, see Jon Ronson‘s excellent ‘The Psychopath Test‘.)

“There are, in fact, more people in the United States who can’t read than who doubt the existence of Yahweh…”


Manual of Mental Disorders

Harris is critical of the DSM IV definition of ‘delusion,’ which was constructed to specifically exclude any ‘article of religious faith,’ and also based sanity on being in the majority:

“Does a lone psychotic become sane merely by attracting a crowd of devotees? If we are measuring sanity in terms of sheer numbers of subscribers, then atheists and agnostics in the United States must be delusional…”

Friends with families, (or on the verge of starting them), should probably look away now, since:

“…a famous study of human achievement suggests that one of the most reliable ways to diminish a person’s contribution to society is for that person to start a family…”

and furthermore:

“most of the research done on happiness suggests that people actually become less happy when they have children and do not begin to approach their prior level of happiness until their children leave home…”


Sex, Drugs & Cocoa Puffs,’ Chuck Klosterman

A hilarious romp through pop culture from journalist Chuck Klosterman:

“…what The Sims suggests is that buying things makes people happy because it takes their mind off being alive…”

There is a Tim Key‘esque section in the middle of this collection of comic vignettes where Klosterman lists “Twenty-three questions I ask everybody I meet in order to decide if I can really love them…” which had me gasping for breath with laughter:

“Number 14: For reasons that cannot be explained, cats can suddenly read at a twelfth grade level. They can’t write, but they can read silently and understand the text. Many cats love this new skills, because they now ahve something to do all day while they lay around the house; however, a few cats become depressed, because reading forces them to realize the limitations of their existence, (not to mention the utter frustration of being unable to express themselves).

This being the case, do you think the average cat would enjoy ‘Garfield,’ or would cats find this cartoon to be an insulting caricature?”


Seriously…I’m Kidding,’ Ellen DeGeneres

I’ve never really seen much Ellen on TV, but finding this slim autobiog in a bookshop, and having run out of anything else to read, I’m glad I gave it a try:

“I’m crying so much I have mascara running down my face, And I’m not even wearing mascara…”

“Leaning forward in your chair when someone is trying to squeeze behind you isn’t enough. You also have to move your chair…”

“It’s so rare for people to actually set aside time to curl up with a book and read. By the way, I don’t know why you have to curl up to read a book, but that’s what people say. You can’t just say you’re going to read a book because then someone will ask, ‘Well, how are you gonna read it? What position will you be in?…”

Now THIS is how to curl up with a book!

Now THIS is how to curl up with a book!

I was lol‘ing so hard I was literally crying on the beach in Belize reading the fantasy holiday chapter at the end of the book:

“That sand bar incident was embarrassing. I wish I had asked more questions before I swam out there. It’s called a sandbar. Surely I’m not the first person to swim out there and expect a dolphin to make me a mai tai…”


The Lacuna,’ Barbara Kingsolver

Having recently visited Mexico, reading this Kahlo and Rivera semi-fictional piece on politics, sexuality and Latin America was a must-read after having had it recommended to me by so many people. It was very well-written, with interesting historical insight into a period of history and geography I didn’t know enough about, but it was mainly the turns of phrase Kingsolver employs, (such as calling cigarettes ‘lipsticks‘!), and which I hope are well demonstrated by the following selection:

“He hid a scornful smile under his moustache, which is not a good hiding place…”

“…they went to bed, leaving her fluttering around the parlour like a balloon of air, let go…”

“His mother had let him carry two valises: one for books, one for clothes. The clothes were a waste, outgrown instantly. He should have filled both with books…”

(A notion I whole-heartedly approve of!)

“She’d solved the mathematical problem of age sixteen by saying she was twenty. At twenty-four she’d said the same thing again, balancing the equation…”

“Grandmothers sit on blankets weaving more blankets for other grandmothers to sit on…”

“…some typed in Russian, pages of characters in that strange alphabet lined up like rows of little men doing bending exercises…”


Shah of Shahs,’ Ryszard Kapuściński

I am slowly but surely making my way through the complete works of historian/traveller/journalist/unpronounceable Polish legend Kapuściński’s back catalogue, and couldn’t believe my luck when I stumbled upon this slim volume on the last Shah of Iran and the subsequent revolution whilst in Nicaragua at the very end of my trip. Kapuściński’s writing and imagery is truly stunning at times:

“Money changes all the iron rules into rubber bands…”

“The forms through which a crowd can express its yearnings are extraordinarily meagre and continually repeat themselves: the demonstration, the strike, the rally, the barricade. That is why you can write a novel about a man, but about a crowd – never…”

“Iran – it was the twenty-seventh revolution I have seen in the Third World…”

That last sentence says it all: look out for him in the next entry in my Top 10 Favourite Authors series, coming soon.


Posted by on February 23, 2014 in BOOKS


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78. ‘Previous Convictions,’ A.A.Gill…

78. ‘Previous Convictions,’ A.A.Gill…
Previous Convictions,’ A.A.Gill
OK, so I have already blogged on A.A.Gill.
But when  writing is this good, this enjoyable, this damn quotable, how am I meant to resist? This latest offering was read during my stay in Guatemala, (which may have led to little squeals of excitement when I came across the chapter ‘Guatemala’), and I’m going to leave the man to speak for himself with a selection of witty, biting and/or informative quotes.
On Golf:
“The first time you try to hit a golf ball, lifting the stick higher than your elbow, you’ll miss. Not only will you miss the ball, I confidently predict you will miss the entire Earth. The world is a pretty big potato. It’s a planet, and to miss a planet with a stick while actually standing on it might give you some indication of the difficulty in getting on feel-good terms with the rudiments of golf…”
“So far, in purely golfing terms, I have half a swing. Having half a swing is like having half a breaststroke. In functional terms, you’re still drowning. You’re just drowning with intent…”
Casual (and hilarious) racism:
“…being Italian – and therefore more superstitious than a convention of clairvoyants in a ladder factory…”
A theory of dogs which is echoed by Michael Pollan in his book on plant adaptation:
“The first dogs realised that, alone in the natural world, humans crave variety. Everything else wants continuity and certainty; people want novelty. And dogs provide it. What they came up with is the cleverest thing in all of nature: reverse-Darwinism – not the survival of the fittest but the survival of the least fit, the most needy…”
On journalists in Haiti:
“Over dinner on the veranda, the photographers commiserate with Gigi over her lost film. They compare tear-gas vintages: not as peppery as Israel 2000, but with a stronger choking aftertaste than Serbia ’98…”
On why Guatemala is better than Mexico:
“Where the Aztecs are all threats and instructions, the Maya are all observations and questions…”
The shortest version of four decades of brutal Guatemalan history you will ever read:
“Guatemala suffered an intractable civil war that started in 1960, instigated by the CIA on behalf of American fruit companies. Thirty years later, nobody could remember what it was they were fighting about, so they decided to give elections a go…”
AntiguaGuatemalaOn Antigua, Guatemala, where I spent some of my favourite days in the country:
“…there are no road signs, in any language, and indeed often not much road either…”
“Outside in the courtyard, a drunk with rheumy eyes and an idiot’s grin tries to sell us good luck: he doesn’t look as if he has much stock…”
On Vietnam:
“The president’s palace is now a half-hearted museum, kept as it was left – a perfect example not just of the banality of despotism but of the political law that military dictators have taste in inverse proportion to their power…”
On Oman:
“Travel  should question, not confirm. It should excite, not relax…”
On Africa:
“Africans have buckets of sympathy but thimbles of empathy…”
On the absurdities of icy Greenland:
“Greenland has four time zones – two of them don’t even contain a clock…”
And finally, on Brazil, my probably destination for 2014 in time for the World Cup:
“But the favelas are also the engine of culture, which means music and dance. The best parties, the best clubs are up here. There was a dance called the ‘Little Train’; popular with nubile youth, it was a sort of lap-dancing conga. There were reports that teenage girls were getting pregnant not after the dance but during. Now that’s a party…”
Could be an interesting trip!…
Come join me in Rio, 2014?...

Come join me in Rio, 2014?…

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Posted by on August 15, 2013 in BOOKS


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69. Books Bought & Read, April 2013…


Books Bought, April 2013

Wolf Hall‘, Hilary Mantel


Books Read, April 2013

‘The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind’, William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer

‘The Devil In The White City’, Erik Larson

‘Look At Me’, Jennifer Egan

‘Hokkaido Highway Blues’, Will Ferguson

‘After The First Death’Lawrence Block

‘Unbelievable: from my childhood dreams to winning olympic gold’Jessica Ennis

‘Three Men In A Boat’Jerome.K.Jerome

‘Warrior Politics: why leadership demands a pagan ethos’, Robert.D.Kaplan

‘The Moral Landscape: how science can determine human values’Sam Harris

‘Sex, Drugs And Cocoa Puffs’Chuck Klosterman

‘Crónica De Una Muerte Anunciada (Chronicle Of A Death Foretold)’Gabriel García Márquez

‘Seriously…Im Kidding’Ellen de Generes


Yes, I know it’s almost June already, and therefore I should be writing my ‘Books Bought & Read, May 2013’ blog.

But I’m not and I am basically a month behind, mainly because I have been travelling like an ancient Greek hero, and now that I’m back in the UK I’m volunteering like a…well, that’s a tough analogy to come up with: like a man in a room full of men asked who would like to volunteer to do something really fun involving alcohol, chocolate and Scarlett Johansson? No need to be sexist, I suppose, a room full of people asked to volunteer for the above-mentioned.

Anyway, I have just returned from a month swanning around Central America, visiting five countries in three weeks, and doing such ridiculous things as swimming with sharks, diving in caves, surfing down a volcano and getting into and out of the world’s most dangerous town, (four places higher than Baghdad, for cripes sake!!), in around six minutes flat.

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My six months of work/holiday/fun/writing/sleeping/lounging in hammocks in Guatemala has come to an end, and I decided to explore a little more of the continent I had seen so little of, (wait, is Central America a continent? Or just part of North America? Is it a subcontinent of North America? I thought India was the subcontinent!?) I took a single book with me, hoping/presuming that tourists along the trail I was taking, (Guatemala => Belize => Honduras => Nicaragua => El Salvador => Guatemala), would leave behind some fun tomes.

I was mainly wrong.

I picked up a couple of decent reads in the amazing Zephyr Lodge party hostel in Semuc Champey, (the most beautiful place I visited in the region), and one when passing through the Mayan ruin town of Tikal, but soon had to rely on a book started years ago on the Kindle on my iPhone, (JKJ‘s classic ‘Three Men In A Boat‘), which left me with a new dilemma: which cover image to use in the blog for a book which I had read without a cover? The solution: the nicest, oldest looking one I could find, of course. (#firstworldproblems)


Semuc Champey, Guatemala


The only book bought this month wasn’t even technically bought, but swapped with a fellow traveller before leaving San Pedro: Hilary Mantel’s award winning historical novel, an unread and unwrapped signed copy of which I have in The Cupboard in England but which, for some reason, I thought I would find time to read before I left, yet which I soon deemed too heavy to even take on my journey with me.

The reading highlight of the month was the excellent ‘The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind,’ already commented upon and quoted from in last week’s quote blog, (click it, click it!!), and the lowlight was probably reading the rather good ‘Hokkaido Highway Blues‘ and realising that a lot of what I have to say in my forthcoming novel on life in Japan has already been at least hinted at by Will Ferguson, and around a decade ago at that. Still, mine will be more funny, and better written. Hopefully.

That, and the fact that what I thought was the latest novel from author of the amazing Pulitzer Prize (Pull It Surprise?) winning ‘A Visit From The Goon Squad,’ by Jennifer Egan, turned out to be one of her first pieces of writing from around a decade ago, repackaged in a nice cover. And not particularly good.

In the immortal words of Alan Partridge:

Finally, I achieved a lifelong goal in a way last month when I, very temporarily, became the owner of a second-hand bookshop! That is to say, a second-hand book shelf of books for sale, finally letting go of all of the books which had made the journey to Guat with me but which were not going to make it back, for reasons of luggage weight and the desire to pass some great books on to some great people. If you’re joining the blog from the business card you may have found tucked inside the copy of whatever it was you bought from me, welcome! And I hope you enjoyed your read!

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Posted by on May 27, 2013 in BOOKS


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