Saturday 23 February 2019

Several non-fictions

Several non-fiction books to review briefly today, read over the last 4 or 5 weeks.

First up, Around the World in 80 Days by Michael Palin. This was my 2nd. book for Bev's Mount TBR 2019 reading challenge.

There can be very few people who have not seen one of Michael Palin's excellent travel documentaries. He's been everywhere, Pole to Pole, around the Pacific Rim, The Himalayas, explored Eastern Europe and recently went to North Korea. Around the World in 80 Days was his first adventure though, and it was quite surprising, looking at the photos in the book, to see how young he looks. Anyway, having watched all of these docs, I realised recently that I'd never read any of the accompanying books. And then out of the blue my grand-daughter gave me 80 Days for Christmas: perfect. So I've been reading it slowly since the new year and thoroughly enjoying Palin's rather wry, gentle style of writing and humour. You can of course read it in his voice which I always find very helpful. It was all rather familiar - he whips across Europe to Istambul on the Orient Express and from there to Eygpt, which he finds chaotic but convivial, to Saudi Arabia which is too regimented and controlled for his liking. Along the way someone suggests to him that Israel will cease to exist in 25 years, as this was 1988 we can see what happened to that prediction. He sails slowly on a dhow from Arabia to India and I remember that this was one of my favourite parts of the TV programme, I loved how the pace of life slowed so completely. After that it's mainly very large container type ships he travels on which are not as interesting and you see how boredom sets in with him and his various 'Passepartouts'. What, stupidly, surprised me was how much sea travel was actually necessary, I suppose it's quicker and less complicated than going by land. In fact he was on one container ship that goes round and round the globe constantly in 63 days and, ironically, he realises that he could just have got on one of those to do the challenge. An enjoyable read, I enjoyed Palin's writing very much and also hearing about all the books he read along the way and how he acquired them. I shall read more and have in fact reserved his book about Eastern Europe from the library.

Next, To Oldly Go: Tales of Intrepid Travel by the Over-60s. I can't find an editor for this collection but it's published by the Bradt travel guide people. This is my book 6 for Bev's Mount TBR 2019 challenge.

The travel writer, Dervla Murphy, provides an excellent foreward to this collection of travel tales of the over 60s, questioning why, in Jane Austen's time, people allowed middle age to take over at 40, especially as plenty of people back then lived into their 80s and 90s. These days that would be laughable and this volume of travel stories underlines that. It's full of people hardly in the first flush of youth, undertaking all kinds of perilous or slightly mad journeys. A few of my favourites: Matthew Paris swimming across the Thames - very dangerous apparently especially if you mistime your attempt by an hour. Diana Moran (the Green Goddess to those of us of a certain age) walking the Great Wall of China and reflecting on how many soldiers died building it, thus it's known as the largest graveyeard in the world. M.J. Pramik, a man who can't stand heights, goes paragliding with vultures. Elizabeth Pimm drives to Italy on her own, gets a flat tyre in France, two men stop to help her and then drive off with her handbag. The nastiness of the French police towards her took me by surprise a bit. John Carter (again to those of us of a certain age, a well known travel presenter on TV) goes white water rafting in Switzerland thinking he is in the hands of an experienced rafting crew... Rosemary Fretwell writes *beautifully* about walking the area around Cape Wrath in Scotland and so does Sue Bathurst in her piece about pony trekking in Bhutan. Janet Rogers goes to France on a working holiday to improve her French only to find the wife that she has corressponded with has gone off for the week and left her with her mono-syllabic husband. This collection varies a bit, some of the tales were a trifle pedestrian, or just not of interest, football in Sierra Leone for instance. But those that were good were very, very good and not all of the best ones were by professional writers. A lot were amateurs writing beautifully about their trips. I must investigate Bradt Travel Literature to see what else they have.

Lastly, The Mitford Sisters by Mary S.Lovell. This is my 7th. book for Bev's Mount TBR 2019 challenge.

On the back of this book there's a quote by Lord Redesdale which pretty much sums this book up. "I am normal, my wife is normal, but my daughters are each more foolish that the other." To be honest, that's not quite fair although it's a good quote. Nancy, Pam, Diana, Unity, Decca (Jessica) and Debo were certainly a diverse bunch and it's often forgotten that they had a brother until the middle of World War 2, Tom who, if memory serves, came between Pam and Diana. It's quite hard to review such a huge (almost 600 pages) book because it covers such a huge timespan, 1904 - 2000 (Debo and Diana were still alive when it was written) and covers such a lot of ground. A lot of it is dedicated to what happened to the family during the war. It's well documented that Unity fell in love with Hitler but I didn't realise how determined she was to meet him and how she persuaded a lot of her family to do likewise once she knew him well. Pretty much all but Decca fell under his spell and only the girls' father, David, really changed his mind. Also fascinating was the story of how Diana fell for Oswald Mosely and became part of his BUF (British Union of Fascists). For someone like me who's only just beginning to learn the ins and outs of WW2 this made for rivetting reading. Decca lived mainly in the US and was an out and out communist, Nancy was a hugely famous writer, far more than I realised, Pam married a famous scientist at the time and Debo became famous as the woman who saved Chatsworth... I've read several of her books. There's so much to this book that I'd have to write reams to do it justice. For me, Mary S. Lovell struck the perfect balance. The facts, some of them, are quite extreme but I never felt preached at. It's clear what her opinions are about the sisters' shenanigans but she does try to give both sides of the argument when possible and treats the reader as intelligent enough to come to their own conclusions. I thought the writing was excellent too, very conversational and readable. I'm delighted to discover that I have another book by her on my shelves, The Riviera Set, and she's also done one about The Churchills which I will certainly be getting.



Terra said...

I loved reading The Mitford Sisters, what a dazzling family, each sister so different, and it gives a sense of history of the times in addition to their fascinating personal lives.

Cath said...

Terra: Yes... absolutely fascinating women. As you say, each so different and individual. I learnt so much history and it all felt so very personal. I was so upset when the sisters lost children for instance. I loved this book so much I think it could be my 'book of the year'. Thanks for stopping by to comment. :-)

Judith said...

Hi Cath,
Palin's book about Eastern Europe does sound interesting. So few travel writers write about that part of the world.
And the Mitfords--fascinating--what a century of adventures. How sad they lost their only brother in the war.

Vintage Reading said...

Love reading about the Mitford sisters. When I read 'Letters Between Six Sisters' I found that the sister I was most drawn to was Diana even though I could never agree with her political stance. The death of Unity was so sad, too.

To Oldly go looks brilliant!

Cath said...

Judith: The TV series based on Michael Palin's Eastern European travels was excellent and I've every expectation that the book will be too. It's sitting on my library pile right now. You're right, not many travel writers do write about that part of the world, partly to do with the war and subsequent closing off of Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria I think. But Patrick Leigh Fermor went that way before the war and is very interesting on the region.

Nicola: The Mitford sisters' letters is definitely on my radar and has been for a while. And I can quite see why you were drawn to Diana... I felt so sorry that she tried to re-establish a normal relationship with Decca but Decca wasn't having any of it. As you say, I could never agree with Diana politically but her loyalty was second to none. I even felt for Unity, I think she was a young woman with a very misguided, violent crush who just decided to ignore what was really going on in the hopes that it might just go away. Her mother nursed her devotedly after she shot herself, it must have been 'awful' for her. This book bowled me over. I must read some of Nancy's fiction now.

Judith said...

Your reply to Nicola makes me want to read the Mitford Sisters' Letters even more than previously. How to find TIME in the year, I ask you. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts.

Cath said...

Judith: My local library has the Mitford letters... the problem is exactly as you say, finding the 'time' to read everything. And naturally it's a big book. LOL

In other news I've finished Maisie, really enjoyed it, and have reserved book 2 from the library.

Margaret @ BooksPlease said...

I love Michael Palin's TV travel documentaries and although we have some of his books (but not 80 Days)I've never actually read them - just looked at the photos! Shocking!!

Years ago I bought the Mitford Sisters' Letters and I was so keen to read them - but I still haven't - why are they so many books I want to read??? And now I want to read The Mitford Sisters too ...

TracyK said...

We have watched all of Palin's travel series, and just a few months ago started re-watching them. Around the World in 80 Days was one we have re-watched, and I did notice how young he was then. I have my son's copy of the book to read but haven't started it yet. I do remember the Eastern Europe series also, and I think it was my favorite.

I have a book about the Mitford sisters but I don't know which one it is and it is buried somewhere. They do sound very interesting.

Cath said...

Margaret: I can't understand why I've never read any of the books either, although perhaps it's because I don't own any. LOL

I entirely sympathise with you - there really are so many books I want to read and every month more are published that I 'must read'. What to do?

Tracy: We've seen all of Palin's travel series too. I liked the Himalayas one and New Europe... the book is excellent too.

The Mitfords were definitely a fascinating lot and there was a Kennedy connection too. The youngest Mitford sister, Debo, was the sister-in-law of Kick Kennedy, Jack and Bobby's sister.