Sailing Alone Around the World

I’m stunned at not knowing about this book’s existence, what with my obsession with the sea and salty tales. Slocum was the first to sail a boat alone around the world beginning in 1895, back in 1898. His book is both technical and readable, interjecting humor and poetry among the waves in a sparse writing style. He revels in his solitude but also delights in putting into port and meeting the locals. Days upon days are spent reading while the boat sails itself in good weather. His first attempt around Cape Horn fails, so he painstakingly returns through the Straits of Magellan for another crack at it. One helpful friend gives him a bucket of tacks to sprinkle on his deck at night which deters the natives from creeping on to steal from him. At one point he is pursued by natives, so he goes into the cabin and changes clothes, looking like 2 men are on board, then rigs up some sort of cardboard contraption to make it look like 3 men were on board. He spends a length of time in Australia, giving lectures about his trip, and again in South Africa. A great adventure story for the ages.

The Emigrants

Memory and loss, the German way. Four stories of German emigrants to various spots around the world (London, Manchester, New Jersey, Long Island, France), dispersed to the winds by the evil storm clouds of mid-20th century Germany. The narrator’s tale interweaves with his subjects so that “I” refers to several different characters along the way. The common theme is his seeking out background information to plump up the memories or stories he has of these tangential figures in his life. So he goes seeking, deciphering tiny handwritten journals, gathering old photo albums, visiting hospital rooms and old folks’ homes, climbing over locked gates to enter an old Jewish cemetery.

“I felt increasingly that the mental impoverishment and lack of memory that marked the Germans, and the efficiency with which they had cleaned everything up, were beginning to affect my head and my nerves.”
Terrific, moody writing, the kind that guts you and wrenches out your insides without you noticing. The ghost of a butterfly man haunts each tale, or boy with butterfly net, or Nabokov.

I stumbled onto this book by way of reading something online about a memoir Sigrid Nunez just published about Susan Sontag; The Emigrants had been recommended by Sontag to the Nunez as one of her favorites.

Translated by Michael Hulse

Daughter of Fortune

Got swept up in the story and devoured in a weekend. With translated works, I try not to be too picky about the writing itself, since they weren’t Allende’s words I was reading, but Margaret Peden’s. Thus free to float on the wind of the story, I gave myself up to the drama and frantically flipped through this to the end, where Eliza is free at last.
Eliza is an orphan left at the house of an English woman and her brother in Valparaiso, Chile, taken in and cared for by Miss Rose and Mama Fresia, the Indian cook. The sweater the orphan is wrapped in was knit by Miss Rose for her brother John, the sea captain, as we find out deep in the story. Rose is full of secrets, churning out romance novels that John then sells abroad, having lost her respectability to an Austrian tenor thus swept out of England and into the wilds of Chile in the 1830s. Eliza grows up, falls in love, finds out she is pregnant six weeks after her lover has left for the gold fields of California. She meets Tao Chi’en, the Chinese cook, who stows her aboard a ship bound for California, eventually finding out she was pregnant when she miscarries in the hold. Tao is also a doctor, nurses her back to health, she assumes the identity of a Chinese boy when she arrives in San Francisco thus eluding the curious stares from women-starved men. Once she gets her strength back, she becomes a Chilean man on the hunt for her “brother” (e.g. her lover). Her search is futile, and it turns out she and Tao are much better suited for each other.
Lots of strong female characters who shun marriage in this.

English, August: An Indian Story

Delightful, funny, poignant, thoughtful story devoured in 24 hours. A 20-something Indian, returned home after educating abroad at Yale, immersed in the absurdity of Indian Civil Service, smoking weed and surveying the remote areas of India he is to govern. His secret life of smoke, exercise, masturbation, avoidance of civil duty. His compulsion to lie at all questions directed at him. The brief shining light of a productive mission, bringing water to a village whose well had dried up. The perfect antidote to a rainy San Francisco day.

Pillars of the Earth

This was thrust into my hand, furtively. I looked around, no other lit-snobs were looking, so I put it in my bag, walked away from the shadowy corner. After rolling my eyes at how bad the writing was, I got into the story. You have to suspend some disbelief (Tom the Builder has sex with an “angel” hours after he buries his wife and after he abandoned his baby son, only to find out the “angel” was the woman he developed a crush on a few weeks prior), but you get swept away with the drama. True soap opera, all about the building of a cathedral in 1100 AD England by Prior Phillip and his monks, with the help of Tom the Builder, Jack Jackson, Alfred. Ellen is Jack’s mother, living in sin with Tom until expelled from the village. Aliena the daugher of an earl, turns her nose up at William who then wreaks havoc on the rest of the story, raping and pillaging. Prior Phillip is an eager monk, rising from the humble rants to oversee the cathedral at Kingsbridge. His brother Francis is a convenient source of information close to the higher powers. Bishop Waleran seethes because he wants to build his own cathedral and has been thwarted by Phillip at every turn. Favorite character was probably Aliena, who went from highborn to poverty, then scraped her way out of it, selling wool, supporting her brother in his quest to regain the earldom, falling in love with Jack and having 2 children by him but still retaining her own self.