Wednesday, 30 July 2008


AUTHOR: Dervla Murphy


DATE READ: July 2008

NOTES: I read this when it was first published and her bravado and guts filled me with admiration. The lands she travelled in seemed so exotic and far away – although they soon became part of the Hippy Trail of the late 60s and 70s.

On re-reading it my admiration for her courage is undimished – but I was soon struck my just how much the world has changed. Some of the countries she travelled through (albeit with some difficulties) have since become impossible for any independent traveller. The cold war conflict between the USSR and USA were being played out in Afhanistan but who could have guessed the tragedy that lay ahead for the Afghans? I had forgotten the episode visiting the Buddhas at Bamian – a sight no-one will ever see again as these were destroyed by the Taliban a few years ago. She writes of both Afghanistan and Pakistan with great affection but is much less kind to Iran and India…..

She is well able to cope with the simplicity on offer. Her description of a Grade A hotel in Herat was wonderful: “It has an Eastern lavatory but with flush attached (when I pulled the string the whole apparatus collapsed and I was drenched in rusty water!) and there is also a holder for lavatory paper on the wall which makes one feel that if one stayed here long enough it might have paper too some day.”

I do have problems with writers who make sweeping negative statements about a whole people. About the Kashmiris she said “The people are in general the most moronic I’ve met since Persia…” Also “The standard of intelligence of the average village school-teacher is incredibly low” – this was stated after 26 days in Pakistan!

And I wonder if she would still agree with her statement re literacy: “We have yet to prove that universal literacy as we know it advances the mass of the people in any worth-while direction”

As a traveller she obviously relates well to the people she meets along the way. However she is not clear about the number of invitations and introductions she arranged before she set out. How many travellers end up dining with the President of Pakistan?

Loved the list of kit at the end – today surely this would be fleeces and Gore-Tex!

Tuesday, 29 July 2008


AUTHOR: Dervla Murphy


DATE READ: July 2008

NOTES: Having some very fond memories of her first book, Full Tilt, I decided to read one of Dervla Murphy’s more recent books. This journey takes her into Siberia and although she travels with a bicycle she covers great distances by train.

She obviously brings out the best in the people she meets as she is continually being assisted by folk along the way. Despite a series of accidents and mishaps she carries on regardless – her positivity is to be applauded. She meets many interesting people as she travels and describes well the towns and villages in post-Communist Siberia and the constant conflict of the stable but repressive past and the instable and corrupt and uncertain present.

The bits I liked best were her description of the Lake Baikal and of the BAM railway (and the towns and people that were associated with it)

The history of the region, the church and the people, are continually brought up. I found myself skimming much of this as it did not really fit in well with what should have been a travel narrative. It felt very much like “padding” – as if she had looked it all up on the web when she had returned home!

Very often when I read a travel book I have an urge to visit the place written about – but not in this case!

Thursday, 24 July 2008


AUTHOR: Giles Tremlett


DATE READ: July 2008

NOTES: An in-depth and thoroughly researched examination of this intriguing country. This is an extremely readable account of the history, the people, the languages and the culture that have gone into the making of the Spain of today. Although from the title this looks like a travel book it is far more than that. Giles Tremlett devotes a large part of the book (and rightly so) to the Civil War and its aftermath and how the Spanish have adopted a “pact of forgetting”. But other chapters are equally interesting and informative (such as ETA and Basque separatism, the Catalan language, Galician culture) The chapter on Islamist terrorism and Aznar’s response reads like a thriller……

This is an affectionate look at Spain but he doesn’t pull any punches or save us from the seamier side of political corruption or the rise of a criminal gangs.

Highly recommended.

Friday, 11 July 2008


AUTHOR: Robert Harris


DATE READ: July 2008

NOTES: Another thriller from Robert Harris. It gives a very bleak (but not inaccurate) picture of post-Cold War Russia. Fluke Kelso, an historian, is invited to participate in a symposium in Moscow on Stalin (his speciality). An old Russian, Rapava, visits his hotel room and leads him to believe that Stalin left a notebook which could be of real interest to anyone interested in the history of the period and its legacy. Rapava disappears but soon Kelso is on the trail of the notebook aided by Rapava’s estranged daughter and a young American news reporter. The notebook turns out to be not written by Stalin but by a young maid who became pregnant.

The trail takes them to Archangel on the Arctic Coast where they seek out the mysterious offspring of the maid. But the secret police are on Kelso’s trail……

The atmosphere in this book is terrific and the action is fast and (on the whole) believable. The bleakness of Archangel is really well drawn. Unfortunately the plot became a little too fanciful for my taste. But the descriptions of Stalin’s putative son returning to Moscow by train were brilliant and his story telling is great. And there was a good ambivalent ending……


AUTHOR: Niccolo Ammaniti


DATE READ: July 2008

NOTES: Lovely story of a childhood in southern Italy. A poor boy, Michele, living in a tiny hamlet finds a boy chained in a hole in the ground. He copes with the discovery by telling himself fairy stories. There is a gradual loss of innocence as he realises his own parents and other villagers are implicated in the kidnapping of this little boy.

The summer heat, the golden wheatfields and the poverty are all brilliantly described. This is a short book, beautifully crafted with not a superfluous word.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008


AUTHOR: Charlotte Chandler


DATE READ: June 2008

NOTES: This is not a book I would have chosen to read (a reading group choice). If I choose a biography I prefer it to be of an important historical character (eg Pepys or George Eliot) and prefer not to know the minutiae of the lives of film stars or celebrities. Of course, she led an interesting life but I am not sure that this had any bearing on how she acted in films and on the stage.

This biography is written in an uncritical rather dull way and is hardly a page turner. Do we really need to know the story of her early Swedish and German films? And would a woman as intelligent as Bergmann have no comment to make about working in Germany in the film industry when it was being run by Goebbels?

I would have liked a little more explanation or theory as to why she allowed herself to be dominated by Rossellini who refused to allow her to work with any other directors or to go to America…..