I can count on the fingers of one hand what I know about Japan. "Just-in-time" manufacturing methods. Wartime atrocities. Amélie Nothomb's rapid desce...moreI can count on the fingers of one hand what I know about Japan. "Just-in-time" manufacturing methods. Wartime atrocities. Amélie Nothomb's rapid descent from office lady to toilet cleaner in Stupeur Et Tremblements.
All of those are difficult to reconcile with this book. Pico Iyer has both a foreigner's detachment and a lover's involvement as he records in this book the year he spent in Kyoto and his relationship with sad mother of two Sachiko. I still can't say I understand Japanese culture; his gift is not to explain anything, but above all to convey his impressions and emotions in his own particular encounters and experiences. This book was published in 1991, before travel writing had descended into tedious attempts to be "original" by travelling around Ireland with a fridge or opening an Indian restaurant in rural France. I enjoyed it more than I thought I would, given that I've never felt any particular desire to find out more about Japan.
As far as I can tell Pico is sensitive to and respectful of the culture he finds himself in. At one point, he quotes of all people a baseball player who says "It's no good coming over here and criticising the Japanese game. That's like going into someone's house and criticising the way he's arranged the furniture. It's his house, and that's the way he likes it. It's not for the guest to start changing things around." Having put up with a lot of expatriates whingeing about the French way of life recently, I wish that they would take note of this.
Amélie Nothomb (who although Belgian was born in Japan) was not very kind about Japanese culture, and Sachiko's sad life seems to bear this out. Japanese marriage still seems bizarre, with married women and their husbands living their lives apart as virtual strangers. But at the same time Sachiko is able to present a happy front, overwhelming Pico with kindness and thoughtful gifts. But even then, she seems to be moulding herself to Pico, liking everything that he likes to the extent of always ordering the same as him in restaurants, and opening an account at a bank whose mascot is Paddington Bear because he happens to mention how much he liked Paddington when he was young. I found the last quarter of the book, where they prepare to part, the most interesting and moving. Sachiko struggles to come to terms with her new desires, training to be a tour guide and planning to divorce her husband (a hugely radical step in Japan): "I want dream, I want more difficult life. This Japanese system: no dream -- no problem."
The ending is elegiac as Pico and Sachiko say goodbye in a boat on a moonlit lake. But apparently all was not lost, since according to Wikipedia Pico now lives with Sachiko in Kyoto.
This was a little too charming for me. The author is too fond of the sound of his own voice, and of name-dropping all the famous people he knows. The...moreThis was a little too charming for me. The author is too fond of the sound of his own voice, and of name-dropping all the famous people he knows. The insights into the nature of cats are too familiar to anyone who has lived with cats to be interesting, and anyway no-one else's cat is ever as interesting as your own. I skipped quite a lot of it, especially the parts about seals, whales, and burros, which seemed out of place. But if you've just got a cat, or are thinking of adopting one, this could be an entertaining read and will ensure you know what you're letting yourself in for: a life of slavery.(less)
I was quite disappointed with this book on the whole. I was tempted by the rave reviews, but Cain dips in and out of a whole raft of different subject...moreI was quite disappointed with this book on the whole. I was tempted by the rave reviews, but Cain dips in and out of a whole raft of different subjects without being a specialist in any of them. It's like reading an extended pop psychology article from a women's magazine, albeit better referenced and researched. A lot of it simply boils down to anecdotes about herself and people she knows. These don't really resonate with me since this urban, American, suit-wearing corporate lawyer couldn't be much more different from me. I can hardly blame her for writing from an American perspective of course, but her glib cultural generalisations about Asians and Americans didn't go down that well. I'm sure the subject is more complicated than she makes it appear.
However. I don't want to seem too down on it. There is some good stuff here. I was interested to learn that there are genetic and neurological bases to introversion; the "primitive" part of the brain that governs the "fight or flight" response is over-stimulated by new experiences. This made me look back on some traumatic childhood experiences in a new light -- most notably the time at age 12 when I was parachuted into a new school where I knew no-one, was patronised and talked down to, and virtually stopped speaking for 6 months (then we moved house, thank goodness).
Ironically, my favourite quote from this book is not by Cain. One of the chapter epigraphs reads:
Enjoyment appears at the boundary between boredom and anxiety, when the challenges are just balanced with the person's capacity to act. - Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Csikszentmihalyi is a specialist in "flow", which is what programmers know as being "in the zone", when you are fully focussed on a challenging task.
Cain also does a good job of explaining the particular strengths of introverts. It would be nice if extroverts would read this book and cut us talented introverts some slack. I don't suppose they will though -- most likely only introverts are interested in reading a book about how great introverts are :)(less)
I derived deep enjoyment from reading this book. Lucia Graves, daughter of the poet and novelist Robert Graves, grew up in Mallorca, went to universit...moreI derived deep enjoyment from reading this book. Lucia Graves, daughter of the poet and novelist Robert Graves, grew up in Mallorca, went to university in Oxford, and then married a Catalan and brought up her family in a village just outside Barcelona. This position gives her a unique and piercing insight into Catalan culture and society during and after the Franco years -- both an inside view, from her Mallorcan childhood and education in a Catholic school, like any other young Spanish girl, and simultaneously an outsider's view -- like Persephone, she lives in two worlds. I was already an adult when I moved to France, but much of what she says about the fine line inside her head between her different languages and cultures resonated with me. She's both observant and astute, painting a vivid picture of changing Catalan society.
It's not a conventional autobiography -- rather than a sequence of events, it's a series of meditations on events in her life, and the lives of the women around her, from the village midwife to an exiled Latvian prima ballerina, reduced to running a ballet school in Palma. She skilfully reveals their hidden strengths and their ways of coping with oppressive Spanish mores during the dictatorship. There's a lot of sadness and stifled potential in these women's stories. The book is also about translation -- hardly surprising that this became her career, and she writes well both on the challenges of finding the right nuances when translating between languages, and on the difficulties she herself faced reconciling her English upbringing with the restrictions of life in Spain. Belonging or not belonging is a strong theme: feeling at home, yet being seen as a foreigner. If you have ever felt like this, you will enjoy this book. (less)
Not all expat books about life in a village in France/Spain/Italy are created equal, but I liked this one very much. I think partly it's because his e...moreNot all expat books about life in a village in France/Spain/Italy are created equal, but I liked this one very much. I think partly it's because his experience mirrors mine, albeit in more spectacular form. Like him, I was first charmed by the welcome from people in our village, their willingness to include us in their activities and introduce us to their friends. And as he gets drawn more deeply into the life of the village, he makes true friends but also sees the seamier and less desirable side of life, and doesn't hesitate to draw a warts-and-all portrait. All of this is beautifully conveyed. And gradually he is drawn into a quixotic quest to re-open the village cinema for just one night, with a very well-known guest of honour. This project makes the second half of the book more compelling than the first. A very enjoyable read.(less)
I lived in London for 5 years in the 1970s, thinking it the centre of the world. Fitzrovia, Camden, Walthamstow, Chiswick, Bethnal Green ... I'm not a...moreI lived in London for 5 years in the 1970s, thinking it the centre of the world. Fitzrovia, Camden, Walthamstow, Chiswick, Bethnal Green ... I'm not at all nostalgic and definitely wouldn't want to live there again. But I really enjoyed this book. The different voices brought back many memories and all of the multi-faceted experience of living in this large, chaotic city. I could empathise with the people who loathed London, and those who loved it.
Craig Taylor has done a remarkable job; presumably he started out with a pile of recorded interviews and somehow winnowed them down and then turned each one into a person's story, coherently told with its own voice. So it's not pure assembly but a talent for identifying and preserving the insights of so many different people into their own lives and the city they live in.
The stories I particularly liked were those of the member of the Royal Life Guards, and the manicurist in Farringdon. I'd have liked to hear more of them. And Smartie is a real find -- from East End kid to stockbroker to DJ to taxi driver. Craig Taylor clearly realised he had a jewel here, because unlike anyone else he made three appearances. So much of what he said about the late 1970s and early 80s was familiar to me -- I met those barrow boys turned stockbrokers when I worked in a pub near Tower Bridge, went to pubs with them, clubbed with them, went to smart restaurants in Mayfair with them ... They were the ones braying over champagne in a Soho pub in 1979, when Margaret Thatcher won the election, while a friend and I gazed gloomily into our beers nearby, feeling that everything was about to go badly wrong. In 1981 I left and haven't been back.
I think you have to have lived in London to enjoy this book, not just visited as a tourist. You have to have the map of it in your head, and remember the tattered pages of the A-Z that was always in your bag.
Peter Rees, City planning officer:
People always say to me, "What's London going to be like when it's finished?" I say, well, dead -- a finished city is a dead city. ... I don't believe London can be planned ... you can't pull out a sheet of paper and say how London should work. London already does work. It works in a way that none of us can understand.
For my money, Ryszard Kapuscinski should be better-known than he is, despite a difficult-to-pronounce name -- he's one of the most outstanding journal...moreFor my money, Ryszard Kapuscinski should be better-known than he is, despite a difficult-to-pronounce name -- he's one of the most outstanding journalists of the 20th century. As the Polish Press Agency's only reporter in Africa, he has covered just about every coup, revolution, civil war, and natural disaster there since 1957 (and also found time to cover conflicts in various other parts of the world as well).
There's an important difference between Kapuscinski and reporters from Western democracies -- unlike them, he has no money. So whereas the other reporters stay at the Hilton and buy or hire Landrovers or planes when they want to go somewhere, Kapuscinski stays in cockroach- and mosquito-infested hovels, catches malaria and TB, and cadges lifts on lorries or private planes. This gets him into some perilous situations (I am constantly amazed by the insouciant way he shrugs off his numerous brushes with death) and it also obviously gives him a different perspective on Africa. He has a gift for engaging with people, and this book is full of encounters with ordinary Africans who would normally just figure as a backdrop to reports on war, famine, or whatever. To him, they are not a homogeneous, starving and desperate mass, but individuals doing their best to get on with their everyday lives in virtually impossible conditions. At one point, he rents an insalubrious room in the "native quarter" of Lagos, despite dire warnings from other westerners of what will happen to him. Their opinions only diverge on one point: whether he will be murdered, or simply die from the effects of the unhygienic conditions. Undaunted, Ryszard carries on anyway. All is well, except that his room is regularly burgled whenever he is absent for a few days. At first, he is enraged. But then a Nigerian, Suleiman, explains to him that in fact the thefts are a gesture of acceptance: they are a way of telling him he is useful to the locals. He will be quite safe so long as he doesn't attempt to find the culprits and punish them. A week later, Suleiman returns with a bunch of white cock feathers and hangs them over the door. The burglaries stop.
The book is full of little vignettes like this (another memorable one is the moment when, sitting on a rock in the desert smoking, he realises he is about to stub out his cigarette on the head of a deadly viper which will bite him if he moves). He's written elsewhere about the horrors of civil war (see notably his earlier book The Soccer War, the title of which refers to a war that broke out between Honduras and El Salvador over a football match). While this book does include eyewitness accounts of coups, it's mostly a vivid, kaleidoscopic view of Africa's multiple landscapes and cultures, mingling personal histories, with brief, effective expositions of history and politics. Despite the grimness of many of the scenes he paints, and the apparent hopelessness of the political and economic situation in every country he visits, the book is genuinely entertaining, and he ends it on a note of hope: a Tanzanian tells him, "The spirit of Africa always takes the form of an elephant, because an elephant cannot be defeated by any other animal -- not the lion, nor the buffalo, nor the snake." Kapuscinski breaks through the stereotyped view of Africa as a continent of famine, corruption, and conflict, and shows you its hidden riches.
This is apparently the first volume of a projected trilogy which will cover Africa, Latin America, and Asia -- I can hardly wait for the rest. If you haven't discovered Kapuscinski yet, you should.(less)
I'd read a lot of rave reviews of this book, so I was keen to read it even though I rarely read non-fiction. So I snapped it up as part of a 3-for-2 o...moreI'd read a lot of rave reviews of this book, so I was keen to read it even though I rarely read non-fiction. So I snapped it up as part of a 3-for-2 offer. It isn't exactly what I'd expected -- the publisher's blurb makes much of Robb cycling 14,000 miles round rural France, enabling him to get a close-up view of landscape and history, but at least as significant is the four years he spent in libraries! This book is a treasure-trove of quirky anecdotes and unexpected aspects of French history. He's obviously a serious historian, with books on Balzac and Rimbaud to his credit, but he writes in an accessible way, always retaining the reader's interest. It's difficult to classify, combining history, geography, anthropology and linguistics.
Robb brings home just how empty, poor, and far from "civilisation" parts of rural France were, even in the 18th and 19th century, and -- as I already knew -- how few people spoke French as their first language. There are some compelling images: the peasants who basically hibernated in winter to conserve energy because they didn't have enough to eat; the cartloads of abandoned babies (because their families couldn't feed them): "The carters set out on their two hundred and fifty mile journey with four or five babies to a basket ... To make the load more tractable and easier on the ears, the babies were given wine instead of milk. Those that dies were dumped at the roadside like rotten apples... for every ten babies that reached Paris, only one survived more than three days."
The chapter on religion has some entertaining anecdotes. Speaking of the traditional fondness for local saints who mirrored earlier pagan gods, he writes: "The church was important in the same way that a shopping mall is important to shoppers: the customers were not particularly interested in thr creator and owner of the mall; they came to see the saints who sold their wares in little chapels around the nave." Then there were the women who, offended by their priest's threat of excommunication, "stormed the altar, tore off his wig, destroyed the processional crosses, and beat him with the pieces."
There are more serious insights here too: for example, he writes that the French obsession with commemoration of significant events on specific dates highlights the reverse: the events that are not commemmorated. He cites the failure to acknowledge Vichy's role in deporting Jews during the Second World War, and the embarrassed silence over Algeria, but this reminded me too of the "hidden history" of refugees fleeing Franco in 1939, treated as criminals and herded into camps in France. Only now, 70 years later, is this event being publicly commemmorated and the failures of the French authorities recognised.
Anyway, I won't burble on any longer -- if you are interested in France, more especially if you are a foreigner living in France and want to understand better why the French are the way they are, this book is definitely worth reading.(less)
I wasn't sure about this book to start with, but I was gradually drawn in. Recovering from a long and debilitating illness, Fiennes comes across a cop...moreI wasn't sure about this book to start with, but I was gradually drawn in. Recovering from a long and debilitating illness, Fiennes comes across a copy of Paul Gallico's The Snow Goose, which he read as a child, and is prompted to follow migrating snow geese from Texas to the Arctic tundra. His journey away from the confines of home gradually reawakens for him the joy of being alive, but like the birds he eventually also longs to return to the familiar himself.
This is a slow, comtemplative book. You get the impression of a silent, solitary figure, who says little about himself but carefully observes the world around him and the people he meets, then painstakingly sets telling details down on paper, meticulously choosing each word. This reticence means that you aren't even sure whether he likes or dislikes the people he meets on his journey. But his descriptions of the emptiness and silence of the tundra at the end of the book are amazing.(less)