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127. ‘Two Girls, One On Each Knee,’ Alan Connor…

127. ‘Two Girls, One On Each Knee,’ Alan Connor…

Two Girls, One On Each Knee,’ Alan Connor

As a lover words, games, puzzles and things you can complete, finish and look at and say: yes, that’s done, I have always enjoyed crosswords.

But let me qualify that: I have always enjoyed 50% of the crossword world.

What’s the capital of Peru? Who wrote ‘A Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich’? How many players are there on a basketball team?

These are the kinds of crosswords I enjoy, also known as Quick Crosswords.

cryptic-crossword

Having read Alan Connor‘s book on the Quick Crosswords older, respectable brother the Cryptic Crossword, I finally feel ready to give a chance to an area of puzzling I had always glanced at, got angry at, and avoided at all costs.

In this sense, it reminded me very much of Sylvia Nasar’s ‘A Beautiful Mind‘ on maths genius John Forbes Nash Jr. which was so well written it rekindled a love of numbers which I had somewhat sacrificed to words in my teens, and I rushed straight out to my university library to read some maths books.

Which I didn’t understand a word of, and which confused me.

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Picture from Memebase

In other words, Connor takes a complicated topic and makes it fun and interesting, whilst at the same time giving you the half-dozen or so basic rules you need to begin to penetrate this apparently impenetrable art form – from when to look for anagrams, to dividing each clue into the two (or more) different styles of clue, direct and punning.

It was also full of fantastic trivia: how could I have gone this long without knowing that famous aficionados included literary geniuses Georges Perec and Vladimir Nabakov? Or that a Simpsons episode once revolved around the actual crossword puzzle which had featured in an American newspaper that day, allowing the Venn diagram of people who love both to have one of the most surreal experiences as they came together?

crossword-building

Cryptic crosswords used to be used in English literature as short-hand for England, education and intelligence in a very tweedy sense, but the form is around almost a century later, and used for everything from marriage proposals to best wishes for retiring teachers…from my old high school, no less!

The chapter on anagrams will please anyone who loves language, (and reminded me of the wonderful work of comedian/singer/writer/nice guy Demetri Martin), as well as offering an alternative to the famous Panama palindrome with:

“A dog; a plan; a canal; pagoda!”

which tickled me immensely.

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Palindrome-tastic Demetri Martin

 

I leave my favourite crossword-based story for last though. In 1996 one of the famous crossword creators, (and the thing I took away most from this work was how impressive, consistent, inventive and world-famous these creators can be), made American solvers furious by daring to have two clues to answer: ‘Lead story in tomorrow’s newspaper (!)’, i.e. who would win the next day’s presidential election.

Was he guessing? Did he know something nobody should have done? How did he do it?

The answer is genius…and here!

You thought cryptic crosswords were difficult? They may be even more complicated than you think!

i.chzbgr

Picture from Memebase

Or, after reading this book, possibly just that little bit easier. I don’t know – I still haven’t tried to solve one yet…

(And in case you were wondering, the ‘cryptic’ book title is one of the easier clues to get…but they all feel pretty good when you get one! If you need a hint: ‘one on each knee’ is the literal clue, and ‘two girls’ is the cryptic part. Think of names, and medicine, and leave me a comment if you want to know the answer).

 

 

 
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Posted by on October 12, 2014 in BOOKS

 

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87. Some quotes and things…

Since I am currently travelling around Israel with my family, I once more present to you this week a selection of ideas jotted down from the many and varied books ingested over the past year or so. Preserving turns of phrase and thought-provoking comments was one of the main reasons I started this blog after all. Enjoy!
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The Terrible Privacy Of Maxwell Sim,’ Jonathan Coe
Coe, one of my favourite contemporary English writers, is the flipside of another of my favourites, Ian McEwan, reporting on everyday English life with all its awkwardness and inadequacies, but focusing on the comic side rather than the tragic.

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“I remember asking her for some pointers about books I should read: books that might potentially change my life. She told me to try some contemporary Americanfiction. ‘Like what?’ I asked. ‘Try getting one of the Rabbit books,’ she told me, and a few hours later, when I came back from the bookshop and showed her what I’d bought, she said, ‘Is this meant to be some sort of joke?’ It was Watership Down‘…”
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The Spirit Level: why equality is better for everyone,’ Richard Wilkinson & Kate Pickett
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This was an interesting, left-leaning book of the scientific kind which I love so much, explaining why the out-of-control widening wealth gap is bad for societies.
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A quote at the header of Chapter 5 on Mental Health and Drug Use caught my eye, and my imagination:
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“‘It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society’ {Krishnamurti}”
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On a monkey-based psychological study which I had somehow never heard of:
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“Monkeys that had become dominant had more dopamine activity in their brains than they had exhibited before becoming dominant, while monkeys that became subordinate when housed in groups showed no changes in their brain chemistry.

Photo from wikipedia

Photo from wikipedia

The dominant monkeys took much less cocaine than the subordinate monkeys. In effect, the subordinate monkeys were medicating themselves against the impact of their low social status…”

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In the same vein:.
“In a striking experiment, researchers have also shown that people with friends are less likely to catch a cold when given the same measured exposure to the cold virus – in fact the more friends they had, the more resistant they were. Experiments have also shown that physical wounds heal faster if people have good relationships with their intimate partners…”
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Finally, the best (presumably ironic) criticism of our material world I have heard in a while:
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“‘The one who dies with most toys wins.’ {US bumper sticker}”
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‘Dr.Tatiana’s Sex Advice To All Creation: the definitive guide ot he evolutionary biology of sex,’ Olivia Judson
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One of the cleverest books I have read for a while: an explanation of Darwinian theory and animal/insect peculiarities told through an Agony Aunt column for those critters! A sample question:
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“Dear Dr.Tatiana,
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 I’m a queen bee, and I’m worried. All my lovers leave their genitals inside me and then drop dead. Is this normal?
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Perplexed in Cloverhill”
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And a selection of the fascinating, informative replies:
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“After a lengthy lovemaking session, the giant octopus, for example, hands over a spermatophore that is a huge bomb. Over a meter (three feet) long, it contains more than ten billion sperm and explodes inside the female reproductive tract…”
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“Among balloon flies – which are related to dance flies – males make the female a large white silk balloon to play with while they make love…”
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“…young male iguanas…ready to go, desperate to use one or the other of his penises (yes, like many reptiles, he has two, a left and a right penis)…”
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“Male and female orangutans stimulate themselves with sex toys they’ve made out of leaves or twigs…”
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“Unlike the Japanese cardinal fish, a species where males brood fry in their mouths, the Darwin frog doesn’t eat his children if he sees a girl sexier than his original mate…”
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(meaning, presumably, that this is something which the Japanese cardinal fish does do!)
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Finally, on a theory which suggests that nature re-balances itself when there is a shortage of either males or females:
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“…a significantly larger proportion of boys were born in the immediate aftermath of each world war than before the outbreak of hostilities. (I should stress the mechanism for this is unknown and the finding may be a coincidence rather than a demonstration of Fisher’s principle in action. But it is provocative nonetheless)…”
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If only biology classes at school had been this much fun!
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.Invisible Cities,’ Italo Calvino
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A strange, theoretical book of sketches of imaginary, often impossible places. Some parts were a struggle, but there was some beautiful use of language and imagination:
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“What makes Argia different from other cities is that it has earth instead of air…”
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“Paris, where millions of men come home each day grasping a wand of bread…”
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Baguette Table photo from Foodiggity

Baguette Table photo from Foodiggity

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The only way to really summarise this collection of mini-sketches, Borgesian in their absurdity and willingness to propose an idea without having to logically follow it through, (see Argia above), but full of subtle, twisted humour, is to reproduce one of the short descriptions in its entirety:
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“Thin Cities 4
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The city of Sophronia is made up of two half cities. In one there is the great roller-coaster with its steep humps, the carousel with its chain spokes, the Ferris wheel of spinning cages, the death-ride with crouching motor-cyclists, the big top with the clump of trapezes hanging in the middle. The other half-city is of stone and marble and cement, with the bank, the factories, the palaces, the slaughterhouse, the school, and all the rest. One of the half-cities is permanent, the other is temporary, and when the period of its sojourn is over, they uproot it, dismantle it, and take it off, transplanting it to the vacant lots of another half-city.
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And so every year the day comes when the workmen remove the marble pediments, lower the stone walls, the cement pylons, take down the Ministry, the monument, the docks, the petroleum refinery, the hospital, load them onto trailers, to follow from stand to stand their annual itinerary. Here remains the half-Sophronia of the shooting-galleries and the carousels, the shout suspended from the cart of the headlong roller-coaster, and it begins to count the months, and days it must wait before the caravan returns and a complete life can begin again…”
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Civic life and government as a travelling circus: what a beautiful idea…
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Payback: debt and the shadow side of wealth,’ Margaret Atwood
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A gorgeous, slim volume of a series of Atwood‘s speeches on the nature of debt and money.
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On a theme I had read in two or three different books in the weeks before this treatise on the moral, mythic and religious background of money and debt, most recently in the aforequoted Jonathan Coe‘s ‘The Terrible Privacy Of Maxwell Sim‘:
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“Children start saying, ‘That’s not fair!’ at the age of four or so, long before they’re interested in sophisticated investment vehicles or have any sense of the value of coins and bills. They are also filled with satisfaction when the villain in a bedtime story gets an unambiguous comeuppance, and made uneasy when such retribution doesn’t happen. Forgiveness and mercy, like olives and anchovies, seem to be acquired later…”
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(Although neither of those by me. The olives and anchovies, I mean.)
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Finally, on the nineteenth-century novel, a topic covered thoroughly a few weeks later when I read Jeffrey Eugenides‘ ‘The Marriage Plot‘:url-1
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“When I was young and simple, I thought the nineteenth-century novel was driven by love; but now, in my more complicated riper years, I see that it’s also driven by money, which indeed holds a more central place in it than love does, no matter how much the virtues of love may be waved idealistically aloft…The best nineteenth-century revenge is not seeing your enemy’s red blood all over the floor but seeing the red ink all over his balance sheet…”
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Speak, Memory,’ Vladimir Nabakov
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Not at all my favourite by one of my all-time favourite authors, but enough meat to warrant a few mentions here.
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On a topic which fascinates me, the arbitrary division of time and dates: Nabakov was born in a Russia which had not yet adapted to the modern Gregorian calendar from the old Julian one, and thus:
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“By the Old Style I was born on 10 April, at daybreak, in the last year of the last century, and that was (if I could have been whisked across the border at once) 22 April in, say, Germany…”
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On Nabakov’s synesthesia, in which each letter of the alphabet represented a different colour to him:
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“The word for rainbow, a primary, but decidedly muddy, rainbow, is in my private language the hardly pronounceable: kzspygv…”
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Photo from The Neurocritic

Photo from The Neurocritic

“Vivian Bloodmark, a philosophical friend of mine, in later years, used to say that while the scientist sees everything that happens in one point of space, the poet feels everything that happens in one point of time…”
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On the bizarreries of some countries’ familial systems:
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“I had two brothers, Sergey and Kirill. Kirill, the youngest child (1911-64), was also my godson as happened in Russian families…”
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WHAT?!
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On the comparative status of footballing goalkeepers in different nations:
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“In Russia and the Latin countries, that gallant art had been always surrounded with a halo of singular glamour. Aloof, solitary, impassive, the crack goalie is followed in the streets by entrance small boys. He view with the matador and the flying ace as an object of thrilled adulation…He is the lone eagle, the man of mystery, the last defender…
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But in England, at least in the England of my youth, the national dread of showing off and a too grim preoccupation with solid teamwork are not conducive to the development of the goalie’s eccentric art…”
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Ah, how I love it when erudite, intelligent people discuss football! Albert Camus, author of ‘L’Étranger‘ and one of the heroes of the French Existentialist movement, was international goalkeeper for Algeria, after all, and there is a wonderful section in a Martin Amis essay which discusses Salman Rushdie‘s rather surprising ball skills.
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images 74U0uwqKZo814pkvefjCd7gGo1_500
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Finally, a quote which perhaps reveals more about Nabkov’s fiction than anything I have ever read: literature as a challenge, a puzzle, a way to bamboozle and test the reader, and an obsession with chess, echoed in director Stanley Kubrick:
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“It should be understood that competition in chess problems is not really between White and Black but between the composer and the hypothetical solver (just as in a first-rate work of fiction the real clash is not between the characters but between the author and the world)…”
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The Castle,’ Franz Kafka
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“There’s a saying here, perhaps you know it: ‘official decisions have the shyness of young girls’…”
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As I experienced with David Foster Wallace’s ‘Infinite Jest,‘ I once again suffered the frustration of the unfinished novel, this time ending in the most abrupt, unsatisfying of manners:
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“She held a trembling hand out to K. and made him sit down beside her, she spoke with an effort, it was an effort to understand her, but what she said      “
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Bob Servant: hero of dundee,’ Neil Forsyth
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I have recently blogged on the genius first book of this genius spam-annoyer: in this slightly more parochial ‘autobiography’ of Bob Servant there were flashes of hilarity, including wonderful, almost Nabakovian, use of footnotes to undermine the main text:
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“It used to break my heart when Tonto would look over at The Lone Ranger, swish his tail and call him Kemo Sabe. *
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* Tonto did use this phrase regularly but again he wasn’t a horse…”
The Lone Ranger and the (real) Tonto, photo by Spinning Platters

The Lone Ranger and the (real) Tonto, photo by Spinning Platters

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as well as dark, dark humour:
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“I remember when my Dad died I said to my Mum that it was just me and her against the world. She agreed that things weren’t looking good for me but pointed out that it was a bit unfair to drag her down with me…”
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“In 1969 The Great Skirt Hunt came to an end when I got myself a girlfriend. Her name was Daphne but she should have been called Catastrophe and not because that sounds a bit like Daphne but because that’s what she was. She was a girl-next-door type. If you happen to live next door to a fucking idiot…”
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Slowman
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Slow Man,’ J.M.Coetzee
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To end: a single, poignant quote equating love with sickness, from Nobel Prize winning South African Coetzee:
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“All in all, not a man of passion. He is not sure he has ever liked passion, or approved of it. Passion: foreign territory; a comical but unavoidable affliction like mumps, that one hopes to undergo while still young, in one of its milder, less ruinous varieties, so as not to catch it more seriously later on…”
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Posted by on October 23, 2013 in BOOKS

 

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76. Books Bought & Read, May 2013…

76. Books Bought & Read, May 2013…

Books Bought, May 2013

The Prague Cemetery,’ Umberto Eco

The Stories Of Vladimir Nabakov,’ Vladimir Nabakov

Nine Novels,’ F.Scott.Fitzgerald

Shah Of Shahs,’ Ryszard Kapuściński

De Profundis,’ Oscar Wilde

Into The Wild,’ John Krakauer

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Books Read, May 2013

‘Brunelleschi’s Dome,’ Ross King

De Profundis,’ Oscar Wilde

Into The Wild,’ John Krakauer

Noah Barleywater Runs Away,’ John Boyne

The Lacuna,’ Barbara Kingsolver

Game Of Thrones,’ George.R.R.Martin

The Penguin History Of Latin America,’ Edwin Willamson

Wildlife,’ Richard Ford

Agatha Parrot And The Floating Head,’ Kjartan Poskitt

Eleven,’ Mark Watson

Tender Is The Night,’ F.Scott.Fitzgerald

Shah Of Shahs,’ Ryszard Kapuściński

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May was a schizophrenic month for me: as far as reading went, it meant travelling. As far as buying went, it meant the Hay Festival. Both were amazing.

When May began, I was already on the road: somewhere between Belize and Honduras, I believe, and working my way through some monsters, both of which I’d picked up on the gorgeous Caribbean island of Cauy Caulker: the two day trip from Belize, through Guatemala and to the incredible island of Roatan, in Honduras, was whiled away reading my first ‘Game Of Thrones‘ tome, an easy and fun read even having seen the first few seasons of the HBO show, although the lack of a single post-it note for quotes to be noted later is clear evidence that it is more plot- and character-driven than stunning writing.

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Tyrion Lannister, aka The Imp, from
‘Game Of Thrones,’
Camden, London version

Frida and Diego

Frida and Diego

Most of the rest of the journey was a struggle to get through the ‘Penguin History of Latin America’, which had proven so promising in terms of both content and bulk when I ran out of all reading material a week into my journey. Bar a few scattered interesting quotes, however, it was a fairly dry 600+-page trawl, far too focused on the Big Three, (Mexico, Argentina and Brazil), and leaving me wondering about the history of all of the smaller countries I was travelling through. Luckily, I was able to add to my Mexican history when I finally got around to reading Kingsolver‘s ‘The Lacuna,’ her fictional account of a young, gay man’s journey from poor nobody to assistant to art legends Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, before ending up in the US as a victim of the McCarthy Communist witch-hunts. A great read.

Then the books ran out, (anyone doing a trek around Central America, I recommend taking your own stash and not relying on trading: travellers these days appear to have terrible taste in books, or keep them with them, with the exception of a new friend, Gerry, who made me a present of the excellent ‘Into The Wild‘ on my last day in the continent, which was my aeroplane reading for the flight home).

What to do? After years of debating the pros and cons of eReaders, with pro and con friends, I can say this: imagesbeing able to download the complete novels of F.Scott Fitzgerald to read on the Kindle on my iPhone on eight-hour bus journeys for 49p is one of the marks of a great society. I also found it easier to read on my phone than on paper when being driven on often non-existent roads, hence my devouring of anything which happened to have been in my Kindle account from previous years: the classic ‘Three Men In a Boat‘ by Jerome.K.Jerome; ‘Eleven,’ a novel by comedian Mark Watson which I’d been eGiven and which was good, although surprisingly unfunny; a fairly amusing kid’s book given out at last year’s Hay Festival, ‘Agatha Parrot‘; and yet another freebie, a recent Richard Ford novel, ‘Wildlife,’ my first Ford and as depressing as I’d expected.

Before returning to the UK, I exchanged all the books I had collected over the months with Dutch Tony in his Magical Bookshop for a bundle of cash and a single, slim volume to read on the way to the airport, (Oscar Wilde‘s abusive love-letter to the lover who landed him in jail, ‘De Profundis‘), and that was soon succeeded by ‘Shah Of Shahs,’ one of the few Kapuściński works I hadn’t read and managed to pick up on my last night in Guatemala, a fascinating account of the history and downfall of the UK-supported Iranian monarchy.

The ‘Books Bought’ list is misleading, since anyone who knows me knows where I spent the last week of May, and how many books I usually buy there, but there will be a separate blog entry on this year’s Hay Festival and the (ridiculous amount of) books bought at the end of the month: the fact that I only had time to read one book in the week I was there, (John Boyne‘s beautiful ‘Noah Barleywater Runs Away‘), will tell you how busy I was during the event, but that’s another story for another blog.

0679729976.01.LZZZZZZZOf the other six bought, ‘The Prague Cemetery,’ the latest Eco, was traded up for in an island bookshop, and one third of them were gifts which I wasn’t at all sure about including since they weren’t technically ‘bought,’ (what do you think, readers?): The Krakauer, as mentioned, kindly donated by a fellow traveller and book-lover, and the incredibly gorgeous edition of Nabakov short stories, which I had somehow neither seen nor heard of before, by Erin, another bibliophilic traveller with whom I passed many hours, discussing life, love and literature. The power of books to bring people together is one of the many things I love about them.

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Posted by on July 20, 2013 in BOOKS

 

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