Reading Journal for July

Very Hungry Zombie CoverThe Very Hungry Zombie by Michael Teitelbaum

The publisher suggests that the book is unsuitable for small children. I must say I entirely disagree. Last night my daughter picked up The Very Hungry Caterpillar by mistake, put it back, and asked me to help her find The Very Hungry Zombie instead.  Being only one, she has no particular concept of horror, and she quite likes the interactive bit in the middle.

Interactive bit? The bit where you say “He ate one ear.” and she points to her ear, the “and he ate one eye” and she points to her eye, and so on.  You don’t get this with the caterpillar book. So, perhaps not suited to older children, but mine quite likes it. She’s one of the few children I know who can accurately point to her liver, but that’s OK.

I’m not saying it is for everyone, but my daughter loves it.

And there’s a book trailer:

The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work by Alain de Botton

This work feels like it was written as a series of magazine articles which have been congealed together. It has many interesting little turns of phrase, and a few sharp observations, but it lacks the power of a central thesis. His point seems to be that work is a useful distraction from the inevitability of death, but I’d counter that, although this is true, holidays are slightly better in this regard, and so that’s not much of a defence of work.

I like the chapter where he trolls the reader for the majority of the piece, while discussing the design of chocolate biscuits, but I only like it in hindsight. On the first listen I thought he was a terrible snob and that perhaps I should put the book down.  That would have been a mistake, because he wants to pull a twist on the reader. On a more general note, he betrays the people who show him the kindness to be his interviewees, again and again. This is necessary in journalism, but I hope he’s obscured their identities in some way, or constructed them as tall-tale amalgamation, because otherwise he is so deliberately cruel in his observations no sensible person should allow him an interview.

This book is hard to recommend to a particular group, because it lacks a central core. I like his philosophy of design, which is basically that we should find beauty in our industrial landscape, not just our (or, in his case, their, because he’s British) preindustrial one, and think it might suit people wanting a book which is very visual and experiential, even though the experiences tend to be minor and uncomfortable. For people wanting to see beauty in design, in unexpected places.

Betjeman’s Cornwall by John Betjeman

Can you be sentimental about a place which you have never visited? I do not know Cornwall, but I know a bit about Cornwall, at least about how it was in a very brief historical period. It has been a core part of the setting of some books I write for some other people who I try not to mention on the blog too much. I know it enough that the names and places and some of the customs are familiar, and I, listening, wish I could see them, even though I have never seen them before. I enjoyed, particularly, the prose portions, which were read by Geoffrey Palmer (Lionel in As Time Goes By).

Statue of John BetjemanThe poetry is about Cornwall, beset by tourists, who are wrecking the place, as seen by a loving outsider who accepts that he, too is a tourist. When the profound judgement, which he seems to hope for, descends on the tourists and washes away all of their works, he knows he too will be destroyed. In this he reminded me of Corwin from the Amber Chronicles, who, declaiming being a hero, states that on the day of judgement which holy men preach but do not believe, he will be cast into hell, but until then he will be an evil which fights other evils. An odd note to strike,and enjoyable when living in a tourist mecca like the Gold Coast which is debating its identity.

Diversions in Sicily by Henry Festing Jones

An odd book, interesting but lopsided in its structure, about a Victorian-era tourist’s time in Sicily, and his friendship with a particular Sicilian waiter. The book is eventually revealed to be written for his godson, to explain how the waiter met his wife, but on that level it makes little sense. Why tell a Sicilian boy how Sicilian marionettes work, and spend chapter after chapter on their stories, when he will experience them himself?

Diversions in SicilyAs a work for English readers, it doesn’t have quite enough of the other to make it interesting as a travel diary. The main fellow, aside from some racism, is an unassuming sort, and he is surrounded by generous and happy people. There is no real goal or disappointment in it, and so no real conflict. Perhaps, like some of Twain’s books, it is ruined by television: none of the marvels are still marvellous, because we have seen them. Maybe it’s that Italians are not some mysterious people, who live months away by road, doing odd things and eating odd things and worshipping odd things, as they were for Jones, but are people we know and work with, and whose customs are unremarkable. At the time the book must have been popular, because a sequel was written.

The reader of the Librivox version is brilliant, though, and shows that a good reader can draw you in to even quite sparse material.

Reviewed in earlier posts this month:

Beasts and Super-Beasts by Saki

Shakespeare’s sonnets by William Shakespeare

The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster-Bujold