Saturday, August 11, 2012

A vacation with books

While I was traveling in Europe I read several books. When packing I debated how many to take and settled for a couple less than I originally planned. Instead, I took the names of multi-lingual bookstores in Florence and Venice and figured I could find a bookstore in Liverpool.

Well, I needed the bookstore in Venice and indeed found another in Liverpool where I bought three and read one on the flight home. The books were:

Columbus in the Americas by William Least Heat-Moon. This is an account of all four voyages that dear Christopher made to the New World. A lot of the nasty stuff (such as killing and enslaving natives) we associate with the European invasion were first practiced by Columbus himself, though a few of his crew were better at it than he was.

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. I wondered how much of this novel was autobiographical. Much of this is an idyllic tale of a boy growing up in Afghanistan, just before the Soviets arrive. His best friend is the son of the family servant and he doesn't think it odd that his friend is his servant. There are a few scenes of violence, the consequences of which drive the story. Only as an adult does the boy have a chance to try to set things right. This is one I recommend.

The Yiddish Policeman's Union by Michael Chabon. It is humorous as most of his books are, with offbeat descriptions on nearly every page: "Patches on the elbows of his tweed jacket, its color a practical shade of gravy stain." It is a murder mystery set in an alternate history in which Israel was not created in 1948 and Jewish refugees were sent to Sitka, Alaska, where they built a thriving society. But their temporary haven there is about to end.

Bob the Book by David Pratt. Yup, the story is from the point of view of a book, in particular, a scholarly look at gay erotica. Books pass through various owners, share their stories with each other, and even fall in love.

A History of the World in Six Glasses by Tom Standage. This told the story of how six different drinks affected our world.

The oldest, from prehistory, is beer. It was important because beer was safer to drink than water. Once farming began the currency was essentially bread and beer. Earliest writing began to keep tally of who got how much allotment of beer.

Wine was the drink of Greek and Roman Symposia, where men gathered to discuss the ideas of the day. They always mixed their wine with water to show they were civilized by not getting drunk.

Spirits, particularly rum, were instrumental in the colonization of the New World. Rum was a vital part of the slave trade.

Coffee was the drink of choice of the Enlightenment and many great ideas were discussed in coffeehouses.

Tea became the drink of choice of England. Within a century of its introduction it became cheap enough to import from China that even the lowest factory worker was given a tea break. But China didn't want European goods, so payment was usually in smuggled opium. The demand for tea and the great number of Chinese addicted to opium eventually brought down the Chinese government, making way for the Communists to take over 50 years later. Tea growing in India wasn't kind to their society either. The British East India Company had more power than the British government.

Coca Cola followed Americans around the world in World War II. The company said that any soldier could buy a bottle for five cents, no matter what it cost the company. That meant that bottling plants had to be set up overseas to supply the soldiers. And, of course, locals bought the stuff and liked it too.

The book I bought in Venice is An Italian Education by Tim Parks. He's an Englishman who moved it Italy to practice underachievement. He met a local woman, got married, and had kids. He is now a writer. The main idea of the book is to explore how it is that his son is growing up Italian. He contrasts English and Italian ways at looking at things, with the funniest being an English v. Italian summer holiday. I started reading this on the plane as I left Italy on my way to England and found it quite enjoyable.

On the trains and flights home I read About a Boy by Nick Hornby, which I bought in Liverpool. Marcus is 12, living with his mother and having a rough time at a new school. Will is 36, living off an inheritance and working really hard at doing nothing. Most of the tale is breezy. Towards the end Marcus has developed a philosophy of life: In the same way acrobats form a human pyramid, all of us need people under us holding us up. It doesn't always matter who these people are -- Marcus finds that it doesn't have to be his parents. Another way to say it is for his own mental health Marcus builds his own support group, though he doesn't go on to say how he becomes part of the support group for others.

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