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Joseph Haschka (Glendale, CA USA)

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Tales of the Country
Tales of the Country
by Brian Viner
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.39

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Gazing upon Lord Hereford's Knob, 30 Jan 2014
This review is from: Tales of the Country (Paperback)
"Nobody had warned us that the countryside was full of flies, not to mention moths built like prop forwards, with big, leering faces." - from TALES OF THE COUNTRY

"Will called around with a(n) ... American wildlife photographer of considerable renown ... (who) was visiting him because he wanted Will to take him to Tupsley Quarry in Hereford, where Will knew a pond in which hundreds of frogs were frantically mating. They asked if (my son) Joseph and I wanted to go with them, which we did, of course. It was a weekday and I had work to do, but the opportunity to watch 900 bonking frogs doesn't come around all that often." - from TALES OF THE COUNTRY

TALES OF THE COUNTRY by Brian Viner follows that venerable tradition of intrepidly moving to an unfamiliar clime and then telling the rest of us stick-in-the-muds all about it. Some such accounts are better than others; in the former group, I've previously discovered: A Year in Provence, Extra Virgin: Amongst the Olive Groves of Liguria, and Driving Over Lemons: An Optimist in Andalucia (The Lemons Trilogy). I've never come across one about relocating to New Jersey.

As the book begins, Viner and his wife Jane are living in North London and contemplating a move to rural environs. After a false start or two, they manage to sell their city residence and relocate themselves and the kids to the hamlet of Docklow in Herefordshire to occupy a venerable old manor house within sight of Lord Hereford's Knob, a local hill.

The best feature of Viner's narrative is the humor used to describe their coping mechanisms when faced with the unique challenges of their new environment. Of course, that's pretty much theme of all publications in the genre and it's only the amount of charm in the telling that distinguishes one from another. And Brian's particular charm is the relaxed, self-effacing nature of his humor also found in a previous travel essay, Cream Teas, Traffic Jams and Sunburn: The Great British Holiday.

Since I've often day-dreamed about moving to Great Britain (and London in particular), it was surprising to learn that Viner's corner of rural, green and temperate England is infested with flies - ("cluster flies, which lay eggs in the soil and live on worms"). Really? One usually associates swarms of flies with some wretched, sun-blasted Third World refugee camp on the border of a civil war-torn country where factions are fighting over slit trench naming rights. Say it ain't so, Brian! Perhaps I should reconsider New Jersey.

By the author's own admission, there's not much happening in Docklow and its surroundings (except the bonking frogs). Therefore, since the family's purchase of the manor house (called "Docklow Grange" in the story) also included three holiday cottages, it shouldn't be surprising that much of the book deals with the management of, and the guests staying in, those cottages. Indeed, I finished TALES OF THE COUNTRY determined to vacation at the place before I age to the point of torpor. Well, at least take the first step anyway ‒ searching for it on the Web (where it can be found under "Docklow Manor"). I guess I'll have to pack a flyswatter, though.

Since my opinion of a travel essay increases proportional to the strength of the desire it compels in me to either visit or avoid the place, then TALES OF THE COUNTRY is a worthy success.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 27, 2014 6:05 PM BST

My Planet: Finding Humor in the Oddest Places
My Planet: Finding Humor in the Oddest Places
by Mary Roach
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.80

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Observing the world with a cocked eyebrow, 19 Jan 2014
"Me, I enjoy the goofy intimacy of brushing your teeth together (with your spouse), talking over the day's events in an unintelligible foamy garble. That's what marriage is all about. Isn't it?" ‒ Mary Roach

Mary Roach's forays into popular science (with an emphasis on the human body and physiology) ‒ Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, Bonk: The Curious Coupling Of Sex and Science, Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, and Packing for Mars: The Curious Science Of Life In Space ‒ have proven to me at least that she's a national treasure. For readers of these books, the author strives to be informative, but from a viewpoint which demonstrates that she doesn't take things too seriously; there's always that sideways look with a cocked eyebrow.

MY PLANET is a collection of sixty of her essays that originally appeared in Reader's Digest and in which she provides humorous commentary on everyday things and circumstances encountered by her in her world. As such, they may remind one of Andy Rooney's musings, both in his books and on "60 Minutes", though so far Mary hasn't demonstrated Rooney's curmudgeonly side. I like Mary's take on life's absurdities so much better.

In MY PLANET, Roach's wit encompasses such of life's experiences as the inconsiderate fellow airline passenger, choosing a cold medication, and dealing with hotel room aggravations. But her best essays are those that reveal a gentle, self-deprecating humor which, on a personally wider scale, also includes her husband Ed as she makes wry comments on those, um, minor differences of opinion and perspective that provide tempest-in-a-teapot turbulences to any marriage. (One wonders what Ed's side of the stories might sound like.)

Mary Roach always makes my day. I'd like to give her a hug.

Lion Heart
Lion Heart
by Justin Cartwright
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.91

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars An awkward juxtaposition, 13 Jan 2014
This review is from: Lion Heart (Hardcover)
In LION HEART by Justin Cartwright, his hero, Richard Cathar, becomes obsessed with the historical mystery that consumed his failed and drug addled father, i.e. whether or not King Richard I (the Lionheart) of England managed to obtain the True Cross from Saladin during the former's participation in the Third Crusade and bring the artifact back to Europe.

That portion of the novel that deals with Richard from his arrival at Acre in 1191 to his death in 1199 may provide some substance to any casual student of the Plantagenet dynasty and Richard I in particular. Unfortunately, most of the book is a contemporary romance between Cathar and Noor, a half-Palestinian, Christian Arab journalist who adds multiple complications to the emotional life of Cathar while he pursues the Lionheart through archival history under the guise of writing a paper on Crusader art.

The story of King Richard is, and will remain, a fascinating one for anyone so inclined. Cathar's story seemed to me insipid in comparison. Plus, I never got to like him much. In the end, the juxtaposition of the two tales seemed contrived and simply unfortunate.

Mary Poppins (Essential Modern Classics)
Mary Poppins (Essential Modern Classics)
by P. L. Travers
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.85

5.0 out of 5 stars No Julie Andrews here by any stretch, 7 Jan 2014
(Note: This review is of the 1981 U.S. paperback edition published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

"'Just look at you!' said Mary Poppins to herself, particularly noticing (in the shop window's reflection) how nice her new gloves with the fur tops looked ... And having examined the reflection of the gloves she went carefully over her whole person ‒ coat, hat, scarf, and shoes, with herself inside ... But the winter afternoons she knew were short, and they had to be home by tea-time. So with a sigh she wrenched herself away from the glorious reflection." ‒ from MARY POPPINS

"And another of (the birds) mistook Mary Poppin's new hat for a rose garden and pecked off a flower ...'You ought to be in a pie ‒ that's where you ought to be,' said Mary Poppins to him angrily." ‒ from MARY POPPINS

"All day long Mary Poppins had been in a hurry, and when she was in a hurry she was always cross. Everything Jane did was bad, everything Michael did was worse. She even snapped at the Twins. Jane and Michael kept out of her way as much as possible, for they knew there were times when it was better not to be seen or heard by Mary Poppins." ‒ from MARY POPPINS

Anyone having ever seen Disney's Mary Poppins [DVD] (1964) and the recently released SAVING MR. BANKS cannot perhaps but be compelled to read the original story by P.L. Travers to make the comparison between the print version and the cinematic one. They are surprisingly different, and you'll never view the latter in the same way again. Perhaps only 15% of the material in the book is recognizably represented on the Big Screen, and, in the former, the elder Banks and Bert play parts that are positively miniscule. Most notably, the text Mary Poppins is both vain and tetchy; no lovable Julie Andrews brandishing a spoonful of sugar here.

Walt Disney obviously cherry-picked the original and then embellished to make HIS creation appeal to an audience used to his light-hearted, musical animation format. I can understand why Travers might have been displeased with the transformation.

Any reader who is as struck by the results of the comparison as I was may have to be reminded that Travers's MARY POPPINS remains the magical work that enthralled both young and old in a time when there weren't the distractions of smart phones and tablet computers (much less television). Awarding it five stars comes in recognition of that fact if nothing else. It's a masterpiece of whimsy.

One of the more interesting aspects of this edition (published post-1981) is the revision to the chapter entitled "Bad Tuesday" in which Mary takes her young charges on a tour of the four points of the compass using a magic compass. In the 1934 version, they meet an American Indian, an Eskimo, a sub-Saharan African, and an ethnic Chinese. By 1981 this was considered too simplistic, and the author was persuaded to change to a dolphin, a macaw, a polar bear, and a panda. Perhaps the criticism Travers faced was an embryonic manifestation of political correctness. Oh, puhleeze! God save us from rampant PC when it comes to the literary classics of any genre!
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 7, 2014 3:23 AM GMT

Soldier Stories
Soldier Stories
Price: £0.00

4.0 out of 5 stars Victoria's men, 4 Jan 2014
This review is from: Soldier Stories (Kindle Edition)
"He has received just sufficient education to make him understand half the purport of the orders he receives, and to speculate on the nature of clean, incised, and shattering wounds." ‒ from SOLDIER STORIES, on the first-enlistment Tommy

"So we loosed a bloomin' volley,
An' we made the beggars cut,
An' when our pouch was emptied out,
We used the bloomin' butt,
Ho! My!
Don't yer come anigh,
When Tommy is a playin' with the baynit an' the butt."
‒ from SOLDIER STORIES, a barrack room ballad

Queen Victoria may have ruled the Empire, but it was her soldiers, sailors, and colonial administrators that bore its weight. Here, in SOLDIER STORIES, are seven of Rudyard Kipling's short stories, most of which have three recurring characters: Terence Mulvaney, Stanley Ortheris, and John Learoyd ‒ all rank-and-file Tommies serving (at one point or another) in India and Burma. The short story "The Drums of the Fore and Aft" takes place in Afghanistan and has as its two heroes the drummer boys Jakin and Lew.

The time is the 1880s.

The principle character is Mulvaney, and his "Oirish" dialect is quite often difficult to comprehend and it takes getting used to. I sometimes just resorted to skimming the text for the gist of it. That said, Mulvaney is an enormously appealing fellow. I wonder if his character may have served to some extent as the basis for McAuslan of George MacDonald Fraser's McAuslan series (The Complete McAuslan) although the latter was a Scotsman.

SOLDIER STORIES open a small window of insight in what it was like to serve with Her Majesty's regiments, either on the front lines or in the cantonments in Afghanistan, India, and Burma. It should appeal to any casual student of the British Empire and the colonial British Army. And, for the most part, the plots of the stories will leave the reader satisfied. Only "The Man Who Was" seemed incomplete and left me wondering what the entire backstory was.

SOLDIER STORIES is a worthwhile read if your interests encompass the subject matter.

Note: The Kindle edition omits the end-of-chapter illustrations presumably included in the printed-text editions.

The Expats
The Expats
by Chris Pavone
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.59

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Honesty is a consensual continuum", 28 Dec 2013
This review is from: The Expats (Paperback)
"You know the lines (in a marriage) are there, you feel them: the things you don't discuss ... So when you eventually find yourself at one of these lines, your toe inching over, it's not only shocking and horrifying, it's banal. Because you've always been aware that the lines were there, where you were trying with all your might not to see them, knowing that sooner or later you would." ‒ from THE EXPATS

THE EXPATS by Chris Pavone is a delicious novel of things left unsaid in a marriage, things woven into a pattern of intelligent plotting and eyebrow-raising plot twists.

When Kate's husband Dexter lands a gig as the security IT consultant for a European bank, the former gives up her job as a U.S. government desk jockey and moves with her husband and two sons to Luxembourg.

Dexter's job is to make the bank and its computer so secure that he can't even tell Kate whom he works for or what he does. Kate is irritated by all the secrecy, but who is she to complain. After all, she has a Big Secret of her own that she's kept from her husband since the first day she met him. But soon she must take a proactive interest in his affairs when it appears others are doing so. Are they after him ‒ or her?

Kate is an endearing protagonist as the reader observes her reluctantly embrace her new role as an expat housewife left to take the kids to school and clean up their room, do the laundry and shopping and minor home repairs, make the gossip rounds over lunch with other expat wives, and plan family vacations to other European cities. But, at the end of the day, she's still left with the Big Question: What the hell is Dexter up to.

A minor fault of THE EXPATS might be the sometimes slightly confusing time line spread out between Today and Two Years Earlier. My best advice is to just go with the flow.

About two-thirds of the way through the storyline, I began to wonder if the author hadn't perhaps made his story too long. But, when I arrived at the dynamite plot twists, I realized they were predicated on all that had come before and that all of the backstory elements were necessary.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment is the realization that we won't likely be seeing Kate again as THE EXPATS is most probably a one-off.

P.S. 2/5/14: I was wrong about Kate being a one-off character. Happily, she appears again in The Accident being released in March.

Underground, Overground: A Passenger's History of the Tube
Underground, Overground: A Passenger's History of the Tube
by Andrew Martin
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

5.0 out of 5 stars Minding the Gap, 10 Dec 2013
"I visited the (East London) line shortly after it re-opened, noting that the refurbishment had done nothing to eliminate the brackish stink of the Thames at Wapping or the constant sound of rushing water. Standing in that station is like being in the cistern of a great toilet, and you rather dread the flush." - from UNDERGROUND, OVERGROUND

"A friend of mine who works for the Underground said the only death-by-urination that he knew of involved a Metropolitan Line driver, who late one night was being given a lift back to the depot by another driver. He leaned out of the cab to relieve himself, and his head struck a signal post." - from UNDERGROUND, OVERGROUND, examining the possibility of death-by-urination from the electrified rail

If you've read my other reviews on anything English or British, you'll know the affection I have for Great Britain and London in particular. And riding the Underground ("Tube") could front as the essence of my joy at being in the capital. I love the escalators, the advert posters, the occasional busker in busy tunnels, the Tube logo and maps, the Cadbury dispensers, the "Mind the Gap" announcements, the smell and blow of the air along the platform as a train approaches, the sway of a moving car (especially when standing and steadied by a hand-grip), and the magic of descending into a hole in the ground and emerging across town at my desired destination. The experience provides a rush both literally and figuratively.

In UNDERGROUND, OVERGROUND, Andrew Martin distills the social history, network evolution, lore, and contemporary state of the Tube into one immensely readable volume affably told in a manner as it might be shared by the author over a pint at your favorite pub.

The only major flaw in the book is the absence of the famous Underground schematic. However, this is undoubtedly unavoidable as a single page couldn't possibly accommodate such and, even if it could, the cost of publishing a map in the de rigueur colors would be prohibitive. (I think we can all agree that a black and white version of the map simply won't do.) So, I didn't deduct a star for its absence; simply bring it up on your computer or iPad.

Mind you, as a resident in the Los Angeles suburbs, I've always been more than a little irritated that the bloody cab lobby has blocked the city's rudimentary light rail system from establishing a station inside Los Angeles International Airport. Therefore, I was slightly puzzled that Martin made no mention of the Piccadilly Line's arrival at Heathrow. After my first visit in 1975, I followed the progress of the line as it inched towards the airport and was thrilled the first time I could board a train at Heathrow Central for Earl's Court. Well, perhaps it wasn't locally such a momentous milestone as it seemed to me to be. You think?

One of the more notable aspects of the author's narrative is his obvious personal fondness for the Tube, which is apparent in the following excerpt:

"One benefit of the driverless trains is that you can sit right at the front and have that privileged, hypnotic, driver's-eye view of a ride through the tunnels. On the DLR (Docklands Light Railway)... I always try to sit at the front. (It's usually just a matter of elbowing aside some ten-year-old boys; I can then get on with pretending to drive the train.)"

While UNDERGROUND, OVERGROUND might not hold any interest for one not an Anglophile or, at least, a railway buff, for me it was a book I couldn't put down.

By the Seat of My Pants (Lonely Planet Travel Literature)
By the Seat of My Pants (Lonely Planet Travel Literature)
by Simon Winchester
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

4.0 out of 5 stars All good stuff, 24 Nov 2013
"We travel ... for adventure and fun, to get away from the drudgery of our lives at home ... We meet people for whom our presence is nothing but opportunity, to take them out of the sadness and difficulty of their lives. The smiles exchanged on both sides have something of a nervous edge." ‒ Pico Iyer, in BY THE SEAT OF MY PANTS

I always approach a literary anthology with some trepidation; I expect the stories to fall on the bell curve of Gaussian distribution and it's the several at the low end that often have me wishing I hadn't cracked the book at all. But the curve represented by the thirty-one chapters in BY THE SEAT OF MY PANTS, subtitled "Humorous Tales of Travel and Misadventure," is skewed sharply to the right. It's all pretty much good stuff. Indeed, while I give one tale three stars, the rest get four or five.

Ok, ok. I've been robbed blind by a pair of Gipsy pickpockets on Rome's Ponte Sant'Angelo, locked myself INSIDE my car in Portsmouth, England, and, while as a clueless foreigner struggling with the language barrier at Bucharest's B„neasa Airport during the height of the Cold War, was stopped from boarding the wrong plane even as I had my foot on the bottom step of the air-stairs. But I haven't a story to match any of those here.

Escaping the drudgery of life at home to travel outside the comfort zone is an invitation to be taken unawares and delighted, enraged, surprised, scammed, annoyed, physically sickened, confused or enraptured. But, it beats staying home doing the laundry. Among other things, the aggregate thirty-one wayfaring contributors to BY THE SEAT OF MY PANTS are sorely embarrassed ("Blackout in Ushuaia", "Dutch Toilet", "Walk of Fame"), unexpectedly delighted ("Carpet-Rolling", "The Garden Kitchen"), befooled ("Let the Buyer Beware", "An Award Winning Performance"), confounded ("The Afghan Tourist Office", "Left Luggage"), amazed ("A Matter of Trust") and otherwise educated for the better ("Journey to the Centre of the Earth", "Naked in Oaxaca"). And, indeed, in "Wangara's Cross" I came across perhaps the most poetic explanation of the sun's traverse of the sky from sunrise to sunset that I've ever read.

This is the perfect book for anyone with Wanderlust. And, hey, I'm in!

Then there was the time I took the slow train from Timisoara to Bucharest accompanied by drunken Romanian Land Forces troops.

Dynamite Fishermen
Dynamite Fishermen
Price: £2.45

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Bond would've been bored out of his skull, 12 Nov 2013
As has been admirably noted by at least one other reviewer, DYNAMITE FISHERMEN follows shoes-on-the-pavement CIA agent Conrad Prosser as he performs the nuts-and-bolts duties of his assignment to the American Embassy in turmoil-torn Beirut of the early 1980s, i.e. to gather intelligence and recruit agents. There's no James Bond derring-do here, only the routine, day-to-day efforts to get the job done in hopes of a promotion.

I'm old enough to remember the news reports of the violence in Beirut back during those years. The stew of competing factions ‒ Syrians, Palestinians, Lebanese Christians, Lebanese Army, Iraqi and Israeli surrogates ‒ was confusing both then and now, and author Preston Fleming does little to enlighten the casual reader who has no deeper knowledge of the time and place. For him and Conrad, the mess just is.

It seems to me a novel ‒ especially a spy novel ‒ should incorporate a plot with some degree of overt conflict between major characters and an escalating tension leading to a resolution. The superb character-driven Smiley novels by John le Carré (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley's People) had that. There's nothing like that here in DYNAMITE FISHERMEN.

Fans of this book will say I just don't get it. You're right; maybe I don't. But if I want to read about somebody doing routine tasks, perhaps there's a thriller out there featuring a lead who lays linoleum. Prosser himself was so average and unremarkable a protagonist that I never came to care much about the character or his mission. That, for me, is a serious flaw in any novel.

I recognize why some might give DYNAMITE FISHERMEN four or five stars either because it gives an unembellished, unsensationalized portrayal of a craft usually fictionally fraught with guns, babes, chases and close calls for the hero or because it's a sober and realistic picture of a confused time in a venerable Middle-Eastern crossroads. So, I'll just leave it at three non-committal stars and move on.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 8, 2014 11:57 PM BST

The Potty Mouth at the Table
The Potty Mouth at the Table
by Laurie Notaro
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.32

3.0 out of 5 stars Author freaked by Bambi and his mother on her front lawn. Really?, 25 Oct 2013
"And do you know what vegans bring to Thanksgiving? Hummus. Hummus and nut crackers, and believe me, when you look at your dining room table and there are twelve tubs of beige (fecal material), it is very clear that there is such a thing as too much frigging hummus." - from THE POTTY MOUTH AT THE TABLE

"I was the one who invented that recipe (for stuffed mushrooms) ... THAT WAS ME. That was also me who gave you the recipe when you asked for it ... and (when) a guest (at your Christmas party) complimented you on them... yes, that was me who heard you say 'thank you,' without giving me proper attribution ...when I am standing two feet away. That is theft. Grand food larceny. You are an appetizer thief..." - from THE POTTY MOUTH AT THE TABLE

I'd never read anything by Laurie Notaro before, but the title THE POTTY MOUTH AT THE TABLE implied that her talent is for deliberately saying inconvenient but witty things in polite company just to see, with a glint in her eyes, what the effect would be on the assembly. Since that approach held out promise of a humorous read, I bought the book.

It's all in the packaging; I was seduced.

THE POTTY MOUTH AT THE TABLE is a series of thirty-three short essays in which Notaro expresses annoyance/displeasure/anger/hysteria with circumstances encountered in her life.

Mind you, the author occasionally scores, as with her chapters entitled "Thanksgiving" and "I Only Want to Know if You Have Herpes" in which she respectively disparages Vegan extremism and Facebook postings.

For the most part, however, the author's attempts at humorous rants seem contrived and come across only as petulant and whiney if not downright over the top. Indeed, her reaction to the unexpected appearance of two deer in "Tiny Dancer" had me wishing Notaro had a handler to slap her and shout "Snap out of it!"

The open letter to her husband in "A Handy Manual for A Widower, My Husband" should've caused her husband's lips to curl. It did mine.

It's not that THE POTTY MOUTH AT THE TABLE is a bad book; it just doesn't leave me with the least desire to return to the author's other books for more. For Laurie and her publisher, that may be a bit of bad news; for me, it's a matter of indifference.

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