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26 September 2012

'Down Under' by Bill Bryson I need to visit Australia

I am suspicious of those quotes on book jackets... you know the ones, "riveting", "engaging","best one yet".  I can only think of one occasion when the quote and the name by the quote encouraged me to buy a book.  But never mind that, as to this particular book, the quote said "funny as ever".  I hoped so.  I read the book because it was there.  By there I mean covered in dust under my husband's nightstand.  My son had brought the book from school, certain chapters were required reading (astonished? I was).  The rest of us had not touched it and so it lay.  I vacuumed and dusted and thought "ok, a travel book, why not?"  I don't read travel books unless I'm certain I am going somewhere.  Travel books are not entertaining, I find them slightly pathetic without an actual destination.

Bill Bryson is fortunately in a league of his own.  He travels.  He does not take careful, anal notes.  Instead, he experiences, blunders, learns, discovers and finally makes readers like me laugh out loud in public places.  His dry humor gives the aridity of Australia a good run for its money.  Bill put me in mind of Terry Pratchett's 'Lost Continent' (which is not about Australia).  Any moment I expected to find Death (Terry's DEATH) propping up a dusty bar in the outback Bill was exploring.  There are so many painful, unexpected, horrible ways to die inAustralia and Bill Bryson made me laugh about most of them; Death had to have been around trying to get the joke.

Bill's observations on local idiosyncrasies, politics and cricket give me glimpses of English speaking aliens.  My theory is that given their isolation and red dirt/dust/sand perhaps they are homesick colonizers from Mars.  The result of all this laughing is that now I need to visit Australia.  I need to rent a car with very good climate control.  And I need to try the beer ( yes, I know I live in Germany and beer here is the BEER but Australian beer sounded so good in Bill's book).  I need to vista Uluru and Perth and a crocodile park.  I will carry 'Down Under' with me like a treasure to bury in some desolate beach, provided the local inhabitant of a seashell doesn't kill me first.

Bill Bryson
ISBN: 9780552997034

15 September 2012

'The Prague Cemetery' by Umberto Eco translated by Richard Dixon

I always mean to buy a book by Umberto Eco.  It's been years since I read one of his books. I always seem to pick up something else.  Umberto Eco is everywhere so I keep thinking I'll come back for it.  On this occasion, I was in an unfamiliar part of town waiting for my daughter.  Around the corner I discovered a book store, rather like a parched wanderer discovering an oasis.  Hurrah!  They even had a book shelf full of books in English and not all of them were "best sellers" i.e. romance and crime.  I looked and looked.  You see my ability to read long novels in German is limited; I'm just too slow, slower than in Spanish even.  Not to say that I shouldn't read in German, but I am not always in the mood to commit.  Sorry, enough about book shops, I just get so excited in the environment of book stores. Even in memory...

I bought Mr. Eco with Mr. Dixon and got to work at an ice cream parlor (eating and reading).  How exciting to read a work so well researched.  In fact it is all research.  But, I'll get back to that later.  Umberto ('cause I feel I know him) can pick up a bunch of strings, apparently tangle them, do his magic and show me a woven cloth.  Then, on top of that and most unfairly, I think other writers will agree, he is also excellent at ambiance, setting.  I love stories that not only describe a dirty soul, but the dirt on people's shoes as well without taking my attention away from the story.  Those muddy shoes are a punctuation, an accent if you will, to the action.  19th century European cities were dirty places.  Lack of sanitation, lack of sewage pipes under the whole city, slums and horse "manure" made these localities odorous and filthy.

I should add in passing that 21st century cities are not always much better.  Where I live we still have to avoid horse manure on the side walks.  Years ago I saw St. Paul's Cathedral for the first time.  It was covered in what appeared to be soot.  Moreover, I had popped into London via the Underground (Piccadilly from Heathrow, change at Holborn to the Central line, two stops to St. Paul's) so my first smell of London was at the same moment I came up from the tube. It smelled of third world cities, diesel.  On a positive note, St. Paul's has since been cleaned and London buses have cleaner engines.

Back to Piemonte and Paris... Sometimes, no, most of the time it is easy to dismiss conspiracy theories, especially if they are all-encompassing and thousands of years old.  The bigger they are the more laughable but now I am worried.  Back to that "research" statement.  When I say it is all research, I mean that there is only one thing or person made up in the whole book.  Everything else happened.  Now we call it history.  But back then, they were called conspiracies.  In addition, we learnt history in such a segregated manner that even in our books we did not connect dots.  We studied a war, a revolution, a general but very rarely how these wars, revolutions and generals affected each other across borders and time.  50 years is not so long between Napoleon and Garibaldi.  Ok.  So lesson learnt?  But which of the many conspiracy theories that I can find within seconds are worth believing?  Clearly too much literature is giving me paranoia, but as the saying goes "Just because you are paranoid, does not mean they are not out to get you".

Umberto Eco
ISBN: 9781846554919

09 September 2012

Learning to read on Twitter

I have recently joined the mixed ranks of Twitter.  Mixed because there are so many kinds of people on it with different interests and so many kinds of companies trying to sell you something.  My favorite so far has been a tweet about how you can increase your audience on your blogs and twitter; for a mere 89.95 euros they will send you a whole article with fail safe tips.  The following tweet gave you ten tips for free.  I tried to link my two blogs to Twitter (Ex Libris Miriam and Atypical Miriam) and from there received many (who to follow on Twitter) suggestions based on book loving people.  It excites me and discourages me how many people review books, comment on books, sell their own books and generally disagree about books.

Honestly, I thought that I might be a unique though small voice out there...instead I am so small I may as well not exist.  As for my voice well I guess I am being extremely subjective and hope that someone agrees with me; God knows many disagree with me. Uniqueness lies in the eye of the beholder.  So many people are apparently "unpublished writers who do not suck" that I am beginning to agree with the old adage "inside every person there is a book".

Mind you, I have only been exploring the world of books.  God knows how many topics there are under discussion without the obvious "hungry" tweet with the usual photograph of dinner.  One night I lost at Scrabble, nothing unusual or shameful in it, but I was nonetheless feeling slow and ignorant.  I brightened up over a single malt scotch that BPR and I had bought to try out.  I did some twitting to the effect of "I"m soothing my pride with a single malt scotch...  Suddenly I was bombarded with twitter follow suggestions for whiskey lovers.  I do follow one now.  It was with great hope that I did several tweets about chocolate, you know craving, flavor and even a company I like (La Maison du Chocolat) and I received not one single suggestion for who to follow on twitter. Are the scotch drinkers more vocal than chocolate lovers?  Are they more tech savvy?  Are the twitter intrusive search engines not taking me seriously?  Weird and suspicious...

Twitter has amazed me and bored me by turns.  There are so truly witty and funny people out there who can convey their passions and wit in 140 characters or less, Stephen Fry comes to mind, but there are also some truly boring, lonely people as well who have nothing better to say than "bored", "hungry".  Then I go to the trends sections find the top ten trends include #DoYouRemember, #gofurther, #whatever and so on and so forth.  If people turn their twitter obsession and their time towards curing cancer and colonizing Mars, I would be able to book my tickets for next Summer in a cancer free world for my children.  World peace on the other hand is not going to happen on Twitter; too many people disgree with each other and read things that only confirm their own beliefs, moreover every single government agency with a computer in the basement is monitoring Twitter.  If they were ignoring it before the Arab Spring, they are not now.

Then, of course, there are the multiple types of slangs and abbreviations that people use to fit their thoughts into 140 characters.  These are also mixed with the slangs and abbreviations that are used by different sub-cultures and age groups as well as clubs, and special interest groups.  I currently receive tweets in three different languages and I alternate between feelings of confusion, paranoia and frustration.  Occasionally I get it and feel I'm in until I read the next retweet (RT) from my 21 year old sister.  I read out loud, sounding out the words trying different accents (Spanish writing in English or English writing in Spanish or Pocho) until I make sense of what is written... or not.  So far all this has been an education but here is the rub... at my age and given my limited time, is the slang used by my sisters' DJ friends worth learning?  I mean some comments are funny but I feel like my capacity to retain is limited or do I need to learn more about whiskies, new age writers and philosopher/comedians?

'The Language of Flowers' by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

Say it with flowers

This book followed me around in hardback and then paperback for a long time.  Finally, at a bookseller's in France, I had no choice.  I bought it and read it with a chilled rosé.  The basic premise is that of the coming of age of an orphaned child passed around the social foster system in the States.  It was sad and enlightening; apparently the author based this part of her story on too much cruel reality.  The language of flowers that the protagonist learns and then reinvents gives her sadness and loneliness added depth, intelligence and hope.  When people no longer believe the words that come out of her mouth or the emotions she professes to feel, she still has a way to communicate, if only with herself.  I liked the ideas, the sadness, the hope and the redemption.

By the way, while reading this book I was surrounded by bougainvilleas and mimosas which mean "passion" and "sensitivity" respectively.  A colorful frame to a long awaited vacation.  And how romantic the notion of "saying it with flowers."  In the age of Twitter and emails, a thoughtful, meaningful bouquet is the ultimate sign of commitment and devotion.  Lawyers have made the written word absolute in communication but our original form of sharing ideas was speech.  Created from flesh and breath, it was set free to the air.  It is an ephemeral way  of inventing, sharing and loving.   Flowers can be a happy in-between; they last longer than spoken words but not as long as a letter or emails.  You can always change your mind.  An email is forever as many politicians and journalists have discovered.

Flowers are always welcomed at my home. If I understand your message then it is all to the good and if I cannot then I appreciate the gesture anyway.

Vanessa Diffenbaugh 
ISBN: 9780330532013