Posts filed under ‘travel’



It was fascinating to read an unpublished manuscript and talk to the author about what we liked and didn’t like, and which bits he thought he might cut or change. It was a real insight into the sheer amount of work involved in producing a book.

I guess if we readers work hard we can imagine that it must involve a lot of writing and rewriting, over and over, but the challenge of endless decision making is not so obvious. Every bit of a book must be created, edited, positioned, kept or cut, and each decision, once made, can be revisited at any moment. It’s a heavy burden on a writer, like living in a world with no givens. In writers’ world, in order to walk a step you must first create a world on which to put your foot. Imagine doing that act of creation again and again, with each step, so that these new worlds burst into life and ripple out, up and around every time your foot comes down, only to be replaced with the next maternal step.

The book itself was also a great insight, from an insider, into the gay party scene, and the complexity of long term relationships, gay and otherwise, within that scene.

This was the second part. We read the first part for the bookgroup before last. At one level the second part is a romp around the world with a couple, rob and Alex, who have a lot more sex, drugs, money and travel than most of us will ever manage.  At another level it’s a sappy love story that seems to say, gay or not, just stop agonising. If you love him/her, keep doing it as best you can.

Like the first half, the second also has several other levels. These include good humoured attacks on very legitimate targets like the Catholic Church, and post-modern academia, along with some crime, laughs and adventure.

However the shining moment is the end. Its a joyous chapter where all these levels come together in a glamourous, adventurous, feel good scenario, involving a wedding in Dubai with the best vows of all time.

Prior to this there are many other, briefer, shining moments. The whole book is peppered with surprisingly inventive sentences, that get your attention with colour and insight. It also assaults the reader with something I’m not sure I have ever seen a writer get right before – that moment when two  people meet and there is instant chemistry. The history of the novel in some ways is the history of growing the myth of love at first sight. Writers across the centuries have built this myth from the seed of truth we all recognise – when we meet someone that disturbs our senses, if that effect seems mutual. Here the truth behind the myth is respected, not turned into an imaginary scene involving Princes, or white picket fences. It’s done accurately, it gets the physical gestures we do, and the social manoeuvres we use, when in that situation, just right.

The disturbing thing, though, was that despite all these virtues there is still a lot of work that could be done on the book to improve it. Bookgroupers gave feedback about pacing, particularly at the start, and structure, and some characters. With all the work that had gone into it, and the high quality of a lot of it, the fact there was still a lot more that could be done, did remind me that the task of a writer is not easy

Our other task for this bookgroup was to read a little Proust. Those of us present had actually done this, and it made for a good discussion. He is so famous, and so discussed by the literati, it was great to read a bit and taste what the fuss is all about.

He would not have been a good dinner guest, self obsessed, verbose, sickly, overly sensitive, and humourless. Judging by his writing he may have been one of the most annoying men to ever live, but he may also be one of the most insightful.

His famous, and enormous novel, A la recherche de temps perdu, begins with over 6 pages describing – wait for it – the second or so between between sleeping and waking when you are not sure which is which. He manages turn this moment in to the story of his life, the history of the world, and time itself. Later, I’m told he spends 70 pages on his break up with his girlfriend – wait for it – the girlfriend he had very briefly when he was 14.

I won’t spend time on the obvious negatives. Germaine Greer has demolished the whole thing in the Guardian in a more entertaining manner than I could manage.

Despite Germaine’s entertaining, and accurate, protestations the positives are undeniably there. For example the tiny bit I read did hold a lot of truth and beauty, so much so that I can see why people might say it captures the essence of being human. I would say though, that in 2,000 pages it might be hard not to get something right a some point. From what i could gather the moments of joy, while real and deep, would not be enough to keep me going though the whole tortured thing.

Like Germaine Greer, I don’t care who you are – Joyce or Proust – sentences that cover a whole page are bad writing.



insearch   swann


October 9, 2013 at 11:07 am Leave a comment


for this group we took aunty anne’s advice and read among the russians by colin thubron.

the two key things to note are that it was written in the early 80s before the wall fell, so it is a picture of soviet russia not modern russia, and secondly it includes some great writing

thubron appears to be a great traveller. he has learnt the language before going there, he has all the paperwork needed to get around, a detailed itinary and a seemingly inexhaustible fund of russian history knowledge on which to draw. in addition, he seems to have a gift for meeting people along the way, getting drunk with them, collecting their stories, and weaving their stories into his broader narrative about the history of russia and the place of soviet russia within the history.

the only problem with the book is that he seems to have formed that narrative before his arrival. as a result his beautiful descriptions of who he meets and what he sees seem to confirm his pre-existing theory rather than open him up to any new ideas about russia. for the first two thirds of the book he appears not to make any discoveries or learn anything new, despite travelling through this vast, astonishing country run completely differently from his own.

however, all this annoying feeling of pre-conceived prejudice starts to dissappear as he heads south leaving moscow, leningrad and russia proper behind, and entering what have since become georgia and armenia.

down here his language really runs away into beautiful spiralling descriptions of what sound to be exotic exciting places, even if sad and chaotic at the same time.

but even as i was luxuriating in these detailed descriptions of places i had heard of but knew nothing, i had a nagging doubt. was this an englishman’s prejudices about the nature of europeans and the differences between the the nordic north, germanic middle and latin south transposed onto soviet eastern europe? it seemed strikingly familar, as he talked about depressed grey northerners and lively colourful southerners.

despite this, in the end i really enjoyed it. it left me and the other bookgroupers wanting more, in particular more recent writing on russia. so we are reading some russian short stories in a couple of bookgroups time. it also left me wanting to go to st petersburg and georgia, they really do sound amazing, but alas i wont be doing that, reading will have to suffice.

December 22, 2009 at 12:39 am 1 comment


Books, Baguettes and Bedbugs by Jeremy Mercer

Literature, food and Paris. They are fine ingredients for the book group. In this case many of us found the cooking a two star experience. Mercer’s opening chapters did not connect well into the series of journalistic reports that make up the rest of the chapters. The bookshop and its history are amazing but we found it a little flat, due we thought to the style of telling.

Mercer’s character doesn’t undergo much of a change. Similarly the bookshop doesn’t change so in the end there isnt a story. If it were a film the audience would ask what was the point, and in a few years there might be a classier remake where an ending is added.

Maybe if it were told by a french or english writer there might have been more reflection so you might have felt writer had been on a journey and learnt something rather than just meeting lots of people?

But the book did have a lot of vivid paris in it. So if you have been to paris and you want to re-live it or be reminded of it, its very good for that.

August 3, 2008 at 7:46 am 1 comment

A travel book

Well we had a very interesting discussion on travel at trish’s. from philosophy to time travel and back to lemon myrtle cheese cake – the perfect sunday evening.

Travel – why do we do it, what do we get out it, alone or in company, to what extent are we able to see new places as they are, and how does it change the way we see our own country, is the pleasure all in the expectation or is it in the people you meet?

Lots of questions, not sure about the answers, but bokgroup members certainly have done a lot of it. Except for me. I really felt like a country boy by comparison. So whatever our motivations are they are strong.

July 31, 2005 at 10:29 pm Leave a comment

Henry James, ‘Daisy Miller’

Henry James, ‘Daisy Miller’Sunday was daisy miller day at Dave’s place.

Despite some of us, moi especialment, being somewhat tired and hungover thanks to leannes party the previous night, which was fabulous – thank you annie – we had a fairly lively discussion on Daisy Miller.

The difference of opinion was on how to interpret the main character, Daisy.

Miller’s narrator, the 30 something educated 19th century wealthy American roaming from one luxury hotel in europe to another, and presumably Miller himself, are in love with Daisy. The book is essentially a description of their fascination with her.

However, although in love, his descriptions are ambiguous. It is never clear whether Miller’s narrator genuinely thinks Daisy is fabulous or just stupid and exploitable, and it is never clear which Daisy really is.

So Bookgroupers made up their own minds and everyone chose differently – naive, unwise, scandalous, misunderstood, righteous feminist pioneer – take your pick.

Perhaps some of this ambivalence both in the author and readers reflects societies continuing ambivalence to strong outgoing women.

There were also differences between Bookgroupers on the writing itself. That 19th century Jane Austen style of long winded reserve, that leaves nearly everything unspoken, leaves me cold these days. However, others, particularly Don, loved it.

June 26, 2005 at 10:28 pm Leave a comment


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