The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (Italy)

by EcoUmberto Eco.

Courtesy of Auntie’s Bookstore


What a writer.

The dangerous part about reading this book on the bus is that there’s always at least one creepy guy. So here I am reading along, my eyes on the left page, and I feel the creepy guy’s eyes on me. My eyes drift over to the right and lo and behold, there’s a pornographic illustration! My hand shoots out and covers it up. Which is fine when I’m reading the left page. But then…

Do I turn the page, covering up the part where OMG BLANK is sucking on BLANK’s exposed BLANK and risk losing the plot? Yes. Several times. Fortunately this was during the second half of the book, which is nothing more than an extended retelling of every Flash Gordon comic ever printed. I don’t know. Maybe it’s a guy thing.

map of italySometimes I liked the long lists of quotations from songs, books, movies, and ads and sometimes they felt like a huge information dump. My writer’s group would never let me get away with that. Just saying.

PART ONE (The good part)

The writing is lyrical. I liked the non-sexualized illustrations, which were of old stamps, comic book covers, recordings…it was unusual. I felt the plot promised a fascinating and satisfying resolution: An antiquarian bookseller wakes from a fog, in the hospital and remembers every book he’s ever read, but no details of his personal life. Unfortunately, Eco fails to deliver.

We’re in the small Italian village of Solara, rooting around in the attic and remembering bits of our childhood during World War II. (This was fascinating, since I haven’t read much about the Italian experience under Mussolini. They had a colony in Africa? Who knew.) The protagonist has been flaunting doctor’s orders by drinking a bottle of wine at lunch every day, smoking, and running around raising his blood pressure, when WHAM…

gelatoPART TWO (The disappointing part)

Are we in a coma? Are we dead? Is the writer out of ideas but facing a deadline at his publishers? Did he just give up on these characters? Who knows. Worse still, who cares? I’m definitely not a guy, and definitely not Italian. I know Italians have a different sensibility about sex than Americans, but I’m just not interested in Yambo’s first ejaculation or his early memories of sexual arousal which seem so important to the character (and yet he never remembers meeting his wife or having 2 kids).

northern Italy lakeI don’t like metafiction–never have. I like plot. I like logic. And I especially like having interesting questions raised and then finding out the answers. What happens to the rare old book Yambo finds in the attic just before his second “incident”?

You’ll never know. It’s dropped, like the storyline, in mid-book.

Rating: One dish of squid spaghetti. Spaghetti: delicious. Squid: not so much.

If you would like to read something by Umberto Eco, I found The Name of the Rose to be everything this book was not, and then some.


Korea (South Korea)

by Simon Winchester

KoreaAfter China, what could be more appropriate than a visit to the “Hermit Kingdom” of Korea? So close geographically, so distant in culture.

My Problems With This Narrator

Let’s get this out of the way right now. Simon Winchester comes across to me as a misogynist with a fetish for Asian women. His habit of thrusting his arm down the blouses of Korean women he has just met is distasteful. I also didn’t believe that he turned all the prostitutes away who made advances to him, or that he was so attractive to them. His narration reminded me uncomfortably, at times, of the expats I knew in Tokyo, many of whom had landed in Japan because no woman back home would look at them. Some of my coworkers had an appalling lack of personal hygiene; a few had very bad manners. One had sexual proclivities that were disturbing. Another one claimed he was never going back to California because he had a felony warrant out for his arrest. (How did he get out of the U.S., one wonders?)

And, the author has acquired the anti-American prejudice that some travelling Brits get when exposed repeatedly to Ugly Americans (in his case, the Ugly American Soldier), but this is unfair. We’re not all tourists — some of us are travelers. Other than that, I quite enjoyed the book.

Korea: A Walk Through the Land of Miracles

Winchester begins by telling the story of a group of Dutch sailors from the good ship Sperwer, in the employ of the East India Company, who washed up on Cheju Island, in Korea, in 1653.  Twelve years later, eight of them arrived at the Goto Islands in southwestern Japan and were transported to Nagasaki, where the Dutch had trading rights. Nagasaki was in fact their original destination, but when they’d landed in “the Kingdom of Corea”, they were transported to Seoul to meet the King, then pressed into the army. After an escape attempt, they were exiled to the southwest where, after a decade, they managed to steal a small fishing boat and head for Japan.

Winchester recreates, in part, their journey, by walking across Korea, including the now-honeymoon destination of Cheju Island.

His perspective is interesting because he’s old enough to have watched the Korean War on television. To me, it’s ancient history. It happened before I was born. Winchester expected Korea to be some grim recreation of his imagination instead of the bustling, hustling, Asian powerhouse that I experienced on my two visits to Seoul in the late 1990s. I came to Korea from Japan, so that was my basis for comparison. He came to it from the war. So I learned a lot about the horror of the Korean war, which I’m sure still scars the psyche of the people of both Koreas. There were some pretty ghastly incidents.

Ah, North Korea.

The preface to the second edition has tantalizing bits of information about Winchester’s visits to the north. He was not crazy enough to try to walk there as he knew he might never come out. His trips were by air and he had an official “minder” the whole time. No photos. His journey felt unfinished because he couldn’t go all the way…but of course, that isn’t his fault.

However, I was left with a burning desire to watch some documentaries about North Korea, which I understand are available on Netflix.

I had forgotten that North Korea is a “Communist” country. It took the strange rhetoric captured in the book to remind me. Oh, those Cold War days. It doesn’t SEEM Communist anymore, maybe because the 80s are over or maybe because of the cult of personality around the Kims. They are evil. I hope one day they’ll fall like the Berlin Wall. Unfortunately there always seem to be more @**h#les waiting to take their places.

My Book Group

This book was chosen by Tom. Tom’s wife is Korean. She comes from Tegu, a few hours from Seoul. In the book, Winchester hints that the “true Korea”, the old, real, Korean culture, may exist in the North but is getting stomped out in the South by globalization and technology. It’s too bad. Tom said that the North has an innocence about it and that the South is like America on steroids. America x 100, I think he said.

Yung Sun says she misses the extended family life that Koreans have, and that after 36 years in America she’s caught in-between: No longer Korean, but somehow not American either. It’s a hard place to be. She would like to be a real Korean housewife, with hobbies instead of a job, just looking after the kids. Well, her son is grown but that’s not the point.

Americans are isolated. We are spread apart. This has caused me a lot of psychological pain in the past. Yung Sun says that in the small country of Korea, your relatives are never that far away. Unless, of course, they’re in the North. But because you have so much extended family and are always in their business and they in yours (my words), you don’t really have time for outsiders. I feel like in America we make friends our family and our course, our pets.

The Food

What’s a book group without food? Yung Sun cooked an amazing feast for us…barbequed spareribs; dumplings with Kimchee; glass noodles with mushrooms, egg, and meat; kale and carrots in a mustard sauce, and oh, what that woman can do to celery. I think it had sesame oil soaked into it. I couldn’t stop eating it. Celery. Really!

We toasted the book with soju and finished with rambutan tea. Yeoung Sun says they take the heart of the fruit and soak it in honey before making the tea. She knows a lot about diet and its effect on health, and of course, the traditional Korean way of eating seems much healthier than the American one. No surprise there. And yes–tea AGAIN! It’s amazing how many of the books I’ve read so far have revolved around tea.

Chuck’s Take

One of our members is a retired college professor. Chuck said there were rumors, after the North Koreans signed the armistice in 1953, that President Eisenhower had threatened them with The Bomb in order to get them to do so. Kind of ironic, now that the Dear Leader is waving it at us.


Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (China)

When I was in graduate school, my friend Hanjo, also in the program, told me that he found the English language to be flat and two-dimensional. In Chinese, he said, when you write, you actually see the thing you’re writing about. It’s like drawing a tree and writing tree at the same time, he said. Chinese writing. Chinese food. Chinese dragons.

China has had such a HUGE unique presence in the world that I felt fine with reading a little tiny book for my Chinese choice. (I feel I know more about China than some other countries I’ve picked out, that is.) And this tiny good little bBalzacook fell into my hands from the free box at Auntie’s. Score!

The Setting

The book takes place during China’s cultural revolution, when intellectuals were sent into the country to work with their hands and peasants were sent into the cities to be academics.

I can only imagine how awful it would be to be ripped from doing what you love and sent to do something you don’t know how to do. I am an intellectual. I would hate to have to work in a rice paddy or, like the city boys in the book, get exiled to a mountain village where first they have to work in a coal mine and later they have to carry buckets of excrement and water on their backs to the fields.

But the peasants sent to the city don’t have it much better–I imagine that the dentist who pulls the tooth of the village headman was one–he pulls the wrong tooth and the headman returns to his village worse off than before. There’s a scene with a sewing machine and this tooth that almost made me pass out.

But despite all of the upheaval, life goes on, and one of the boys falls in love. Even better, they suspect their friend Four-Eyes has smuggled a suitcase full of books into exile and begin scheming to get their hands on them.

There are a lot of comic moments in the story and I thought this worked well to underscore the larger tragedy, the wasted lives of people forced beyond their inclinations for the sake of an empty ideology.

It’s interesting because the story is told from the point of view of one of the boys, but in the end it is the girl that turns everything on its head.


I would give this one a suitcase full of books!

It’s funny how, reading these books randomly, one informs the other. There is a reference in this book to Don Quixote, which I just finished…


The Adventures of Don Quixote (Spain)

Unrated. Absolutely without rating.

The Ingenious Man of La Mancha is very interesting from a historical perspective. It really brings home the closeness of Spain and Morocco when you read about the Barbary Coast pirates sailing over for an evening’s raid and then tucking themselves up in their beds before dawn.

I would like to know how strong the Inquisition was in Spain at the time of the writing, because I was never sure if Cervantes makes the priests and religious characters so good because he thought they were, or because he’s afraid of the Church. And of course, any sarcasm would be lost in translation as I don’t speak Spanish.

I did like that the translator, Edith Grossman, would footnote when there was an untranslatable pun and tell me which words in Spanish were being fooled around with. I enjoyed the humorous bits of the book and of course the catty criticisms of other authors and works of fiction.

I did not enjoy the device that the book had been written by a Cede Benengeli and that Don Quixote and Sancho Panza were aware of their adventures being memorialized–I think meta-fiction today and meta-fiction 400 years ago only distracts, disturbs, and keeps you from being able to believe in the story. I also did not enjoy Cervantes’ jabs at the author of the fake Don Quixote. Dude, who cares? Especially 400 years later. Nor did I like having “mini-stories” distracting from the main story–the first one I skipped entirely. We’re just not used to that kind of storytelling anymore. Get to the point!

It was strange and felt sloppy to have so many errors in the book, like Sancho’s wife being called Juana and then Teresa. That’s the kind of thing my bookgroup would never let me get away with!

Still, for having been written that long ago, there were some amazing bits. I liked the occasional humorous remark at the expense of the French, for example, and Sancho Panza’s aphorisms are priceless. That was a unique experience for me in all of literature, the way he strings them together but gets them just a little bit wrong.

I think my favorite parts of the story were in the first chapter, when the priest and the barber are discussion which books to burn, since novels have driven Don Quixote mad, and the priest saves out a few because he hasn’t read them yet…also in the mini-story of the escaped Christian and the Arab woman who wanted to be a Christian…and the part where Don Quixote and Sancho come to the forest where they’ve hanged all the bandits.

Oooh, my ride is here. Not a Rocinante or a grey donkey, but a blue Subaru. More on this later.


Swords, Ships and Sugar: A History of Nevis (St. Kitts and Nevis)

St Kitts Harbourby Vincent K. Hubbard

Courtesy of a special order from Auntie’s Bookstore

The Good

You know how grapefruit juice is the only juice that negates the effects of certain medicines? This powerful fruit was created on the island of Nevis when oranges from Spain cross-pollinated naturally with a fruit from the far East called Shaddock. (It’s now called a pomelo.)

St Kitts and NevisIn other interesting facts, the islands have seen many hurricanes. These weather events are named for the Caribbean god Huracan, by the way. There is a whole chapter on hurricanes here, along with one called Volcanos and Rainfall. In Religious Conflicts, we find that in 1703, Roman Catholics were banned by law from settling in the Leeward Islands. This was because Protestant England was fighting Catholic Spain/France.

The Bad and the Ugly

Reading about the atrocities visited on the indigenous Arawak and Carib peoples by Spaniards and their ilk since about 1550 made me cross. Especially the bit which said that Spain decided that the Arawaks, being “cannibals” who ritually ate bits of their enemies killed in battle, could be enslaved while the Carib could not. Which resulted in almost every Carib being reclassified as an Arawak so they could be enslaved.

Arawak PeoplesThe Spanish then made the native St. Kitts Indians and Nevis Indians jump into the ocean with huge boulders in their arms, sink to the bottom and harvest pearls while holding their breath. For 16 hours a day.

I imagine many fine ladies wore these gems on their fat bosoms back in Europe, unknowing and uncaring where they came from. Grrrrr! How the Nazis would have loved these guys.

A Book For Dipping

I must admit to diving into this work as a sort of Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader rather than reading it straight through, as a good member of the Nevis Historical and Conservation Society such as the author surely meant me to do. It is just so full of pearls of trivia! Such as:

  • former sugar plantationAlexander Hamilton was born on Nevis, in 1757, as the illegitimate son of Rachel Faucett Levine of Nevis and James Hamilton, of aristocratic Scottish stock. It was said that because of his birth circumstances, he was barred from the Anglican Church School and was educated at Nevis’s Jewish School instead. Hamilton later joined the American Revolution and became the first U.S. Secretary of the Treasury. Did this prejudicial treatment in his early years incline his adult belief in the American system of separation of church and state? The reason he was a ‘bastard’ is because when his parents divorced, by law, his father was allowed to marry again and his mother was not.
  • Ruins on nevisNapoleon Bonaparte ended the sugar trade and accidentally, the excesses of sugar cane slavery–the taint of which stained the island of Nevis along with so many others in the Caribbean. After losing Haiti to a successful slave rebellion there, Bonaparte offered a cash prize to anyone who could figure out how to crystalize sugar from sugar beets, which could be grown in Europe. A German scientist did it, and the price of sugar plummeted. (Incidentally causing the British Empire to lose their monopoly.) Plantations shut down all over.

book coverThis is obviously a work that the author has put a long labor of love into. And he isn’t just some Rotarian with a passion for obscure local history either–Vincent K. Hubbard served as the Acting Deputy Commissioner of Maritime Affairs of the West African Republic of Liberia in the 1960s, travelling to more than 100 countries in that job. He also set up the country of Vanautu’s Ship Registry for them.

If you enjoy this book, the same author has also written A History of St. Kitts: The Sweet Trade.

Rating: Four guilty mouthfuls of Earl Grey, sweetened with sugar. But not slave-sugar.


March 2013 Progress Report

In March I tarried. I lolligagged. I wallowed. In Spain.

I got behind on my blogging because I was catching up on my drinking; especially a few bottles of Tempranillo (Spanish wine) that I found at (where else) Trader Joe’s. Let me tell you, the Egri Bikiver from Hungary was nothing compared to that Tempranillo. Stuff packs a wallop.

So, in its own way, does Don Quixote.

I loved it, I hated it, I loved it again, I got bored with it, I skipped parts, I re-read others, I got bored with it again, I remained stubbornly determined to finish it! My boss saw me packing it around at work and summed up the story in one word: Adventurous.

As soon as I find my way out of the last 200 pages, I will blog about the adventure of reading a book written over 400 years ago, during the Spanish Inquisition. It’s been a trip.

It was also quite amusing to read Bitter Lemons (Cyprus), by Lawrence Durrell, at the same time that the Cypriot banking crisis was so much on NPR news. Likewise, Korea, by Simon Winchester, as the current Dear Leader rattles his sabers just like dear old Dad. And Granddad.