Thursday, February 16, 2023

"Books books books books"

 Funny why we read books: one of my boss's (Brian Vogt's) favorite authors is Bill Bryson. My colleague of many years, Nick Snakenberg is also a fan. So of course I had to dip into Bryson's work, and being a serial-reader suddenly found I'd read most of his shelf-full of books (very readable and different one from the next--a prerequisite for me: I hate repetition). The subject of Bryson came up in a discussion I was having with Ryan Keating (who builds crevice gardens--mine being one). Ryan is also a keen reader "if you like Bryson you'll love Horwitz". That's a challenge if ever I heard one--so I had to troll through Abebooks and ordered a few likely titles.

Ryan was right: I've bonded immediately with Horwitz. like Peter Hessler and John McPhee (two other of my favorite contemporary writers) Horwitz was a frequent contributor to the New Yorker. These  authors are all documentarians who exemplify the breezy, anecdotal, seemingly dispassionate and personal style that's the hallmark of that magazine so beautifully pilloried in Wes Anderson's The French Dispatch I reviewed last year. Satire aside, I still enjoy both the magazine and its leading contributors.

To get to Blue Latitudes specifically: why do I like it enough to hawk it on my Blog? I will NEVER comprehend mystery books or readers. Nor Fantasy or Science Fiction. I've read a handful of volumes in each of these realms--and even enjoyed them. Not driven to read more. I cannot bring myself to read Romance or Self Help, I have to confess... but to read these to exclusion of poetry, novels, epics, documentaries, history, biographies--well, I find that sad. Horwitz may not be a stylist like Chekhov or Flaubert--but the content of his book is rich and valuable. He weaves a dozen or more themes together in this book seamlessly: the extraordinary miracle that one man could take leaky boats and circumnavigate (in the most circuitous fashion) our uncharted globe three times--that would justify reading in and of itself, The story is pretty riveting when you get into it. For instance, I admired how Horwitz so elegantly evades delving into the details of the astonishing encounters between starved sailors and supple, willing and even enthusiastically compliant Polynesians--leaving more than enough to the imagination. Horwitz actually traces much of Cook's journey himself (often accompanied by an Anglo-Australian sidekick who provides some needed levity). The mental sparks generated by these parallel journeyings are many,  The impacts of tourism, colonialism, climate change, heroism, fame, cultural clashes are limned throughout the book. Horwitz tries hard to get to the heart of who Cook was--as a man--and I think he gets close. I recognize (as he did) that the enormous compulsion to travel and experience new things may be genetic--or at least all consuming. It explains Bruce Chatwin's distressing restlessness. I even see echoes of it in me. And its dangers. And Cook's third, disastrous expedition--where he begins to unravel emotionally and mentally, culminating in an Operatic denouement that rivals Shakespearean or Ancient Greek tragedy in its resonance. This is a book you are likely to tear through and may end up tearing you a bit more than you bargained on. It did me. Read it!

Another page turner. I have been curious all my life what living day to day in a Muslim country might be like. Wassef delivers in spades. This book isn't very long--I think I read it in three days (while working and doing lots else!). I feel as though I've had a thorough visit to Cairo nonetheless. This is a wonderful crash course on entrepreneurship (you follow the author and her two partners as they grow a business they know nothing about into a small queendom of a dozen stores). Nadia's brash, confessional style sweeps you through two marriages, divorces, single motherhood bringing up two daughters while guiding her business through revolution and clashing political upheavals. It is an intense and compelling study of psychological styles (she captures the dynamic of how manager relates to manager, manager/employee and the fantastic interaction with an amazing cast of customers). And somehow she crams in memorable thumbnail portraits of countless maids, chauffeurs, street vendors, relatives--seemingly a whole seething crowd of Egyptians (and foreigners) all in a compact little volume. I take it back: I have read a Romance now--in this case between Nadia and Diwan (her bookstore) and it ends more than gracefully. It's a hell of a read! And of course, it's all about books and bookstores! I had to love it!

Now I see the parallel: both books are portraits of compulsion, Type-A personalities: how much they achieve and how terrible the costs.

I began to do an inventory of my book collection: to my surprise it appears to come to almost the same numbers as my plant collections (both are in the mid four figures) and they do make a formidable array in the five rooms of my house (and at my office at work) where I house them. That's only half the rooms in my house--I do exercise a LITTLE restraint! Of course, three of the non-book rooms are bathrooms. Occasionally a cheeky friend or visitor will ask me if I've read them all. Somewhere I've read that there's a word in Japanese that describes the need to hoard books: my books aren't exactly hoarded--and I've definitely read half at least of what's on my shelves...and on interminable winters like this one I'm apt to chew through a large portion of them. And many of my books are for reference--you do go check them up if you want to determine a species of plant or read up on its history, say.

Plants and books. And travel--these are my pastimes and my work. My strength and perhaps my weakness as I learned with these two volumes. And my own compulsions.


  1. Thanks for the recommendation. I have read Horowitz's Confederate in the Attic. Loved it.

  2. Oh boy, a new author for this Bryson lover. Thanks!

  3. This inspired me to look up Captain Cook and I discovered some interesting things: he died on Valentine's Day in 1779 while his crew was trying to kidnap Hawaii's leader; he was an apprentice near Whitby, one of my favorite places (that explains why there's a statue of him in the square there); and his first name was James (nobody refers to him with his full name, they just call him Captain Cook). Also, none of his children lived long enough to have children of their own.

  4. No better way to spend a winter's day than curled up in front of the fire with a good book. Blue Latitudes sounds intriguing. Will check it out.


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