Wrong About Japan: Peter Carey

★★½

This book caught my eye a while ago, not long after my return from Japan, because I hoped it would tell me a bit more about the country’s lively manga and anime culture. Only now have I got round to reading it (as lighter fare alongside the first five books of Livy’s History of Rome) and I’ve been left feeling rather perplexed. What is it actually meant to be? Part memoir, part travelogue, part pop-culture history, part social analysis, it skips between different guises without ever really settling on one, or fulfilling any. Strangely unsatisfying, it’s perhaps best described as a father-son road movie, in which Carey and his manga-obsessed twelve-year-old son Charley fly to Japan in search of the truth behind this international art phenomenon.

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Arabian Sands: Wilfred Thesiger

★★★★½

Wilfred Thesiger is one of those intriguing people who seem genuinely to have been born out of their time. The Arabian journeys described in his wonderful book could easily have taken place in the late 19th century or, at the very least, in the golden years of Edwardian exploration. They have a timeless quality: the hard slog across the sands; the knife-edge between life and death; the absence of any luxuries or comforts; and only the company of camels and a few trusted men. And yet these journeys, pressing into one of the last great wildernesses of the world, were undertaken between 1946 and 1950: within living memory. Thesiger only died in 2003, but although he is tantalisingly close in time, his spirit is very much that of another age.

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A Time of Gifts: Patrick Leigh Fermor

★★★★★

A Time of Gifts: Book I

Back in the summer, when the weather was balmy and the evenings long, I went through a phase of buying travel books (largely because I’d enjoyed Misadventure in the Middle East so much). With their beautifully-designed covers, Patrick Leigh Fermor’s books had caught my eye many a time in Waterstones, but I’d never read any of them. Now, as the wind rattles my sash windows and the nights close in, I took this first book off my shelf, hoping for a bit of escapism. It has turned out to be far, far more than that.

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Misadventure in the Middle East: Henry Hemming

★★★★

Travels as Tramp, Artist & Spy

It has taken me a very long time to get around to reading this book: years, rather than months. I first heard about it in rather odd circumstances in my early twenties, when a friend and I bumped into Hemming at a History gaudy at our old college and ended up retreating to the pub with him because it felt as if we were the only three people under fifty. We had no idea who or what he was, of course. As we chatted, it turned out that this very personable young man was an author and, furthermore, had had experiences which practically beggared belief. I promised him that I would read his book and, some years later, I’ve finally kept that promise.

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The Valleys of the Assassins: Freya Stark

★★★★

When planning my trip to Qatar, it was hard to decide on reading material.  If I go abroad I always try to find a book which matches the place I’m going, as far as possible: it’s like a game.  I’ve read The Three Musketeers in Paris and The Leopard beside the pool in Sorrento (Sicily itself is still on the ‘to-do’ list).  For the Middle East, the obvious book was Seven Pillars of Wisdom, which is one of the many books I’ve always meant to read. I bought it; but then began to worry that perhaps it might cause offence; I don’t know how T.E. Lawrence is perceived in the Middle East.

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