If you’re experimenting with reading the Pocket Penguins in the listed order, be aware that this is serendipitous but also absolutely illogical. Not to mention jarring: it would never have occurred to me to follow up Marian Keyes with Jorge Luis Borges, and I’m distracted by the feeling that there should be a scrumptious shopping experience lurking somewhere in the corridors of the Library of Babel.
Marian Keyes: Nothing Bad Ever Happens in Tiffany’s
Eight twittering essays/ columns redeemed by Keyes’ conviction that the unbearable lightness of being is a truly desirable human condition. She flits through Russia and Prague with the Teflon hide of the born tourist, but it’s Tiffany’s that brings out the best in the chicklit poster girl; she’s a confident, knowledgeable guide when it comes to malls, high-end stores and shopping. At actual travel? Let’s just say that Pico Iyer came up with the insight that jet lag is another country, not merely an altered state of mind. Keyes on jet lag: “It’s a great excuse to go out and get stotius.” Each to its own.
Jorge Luis Borges: The Mirror of Ink
It’s weird, but this is the perfect format in which to read Borges. I have the Collected Works (“what every pretentious intellectual MUST have!”) and the Collected Poems (Allan, if you’re reading this, I really DID mean to send the book off to you, just keeping it safe, honest)… but Borges rocks when he’s miniaturised. Because you’re not overwhelmed by the weight of the man’s ouevre and knowledge, pressing down to either side of the story you’re reading, even the classic tales–The Library of Babel, Blue Tigers–acquire a new resonance. It allows you to slow down long enough to actually take in the page-and-a-half of The Witness, instead of skimming through it while you charge ahead to the next story. I’m sacrificing one of my Complete Works to the Seth fascicle method. It won’t have the eerie cover of this edition, but it’ll still be my very own portable Borges set.
Roald Dahl: A Taste of the Unexpected
The problem with Roald Dahl? It’s the twist in the tale that makes his stories work, and even if you haven’t read him for a while, your memory’s likely to kick in halfway through, so half the fun’s lost. But for readers who haven’t encountered Dahl’s nasty little riffs for adult readers, Taste, The Way Up to Heaven and The Landlady offer a decent introduction.
Jonathan Safran Foer: The Unabridged Pocketbook of Lightning
Here’s the best and the worst of JSF. His punctuation guide, descending progressively into wingding-inspired flights of fancy, could have been made for this format and manages to be touching instead of plain annoying. For those of us who acknowledge Foer’s precocious brilliance while reserving the right to sneer, he obliges with ammunition: “Using it [the title, The Unabridged Pocketbook of Lightning] now, without any obvious connection to the content of this book, is more like filling a glove with peanuts. Peanuts need to be held in something. A glove can hold peanuts. But a glove and peanuts were not made for each other.
Or maybe they were.”
Homer: The Cave of the Cyclops
What made the Cyclops terrifying for Odysseus wasn’t his brutishness or his great strength: it was that the Cyclopes ignored the laws of god and men, being uninterested in the fate of their neighbours, unbound by the traditions of hospitality to guests. It’s been a long time since I re-read E V Rieu’s translation, which now seems punctilious compared to the soaring poetry of the Robert Fitzgerald version or the dynamism of Robert Fagles’ translation. The Circe story is also here; I got stuck on a small detail. The herb Hermes gives Odysseus as a specific against Circe’s magic is called “moly”–many sources identify this as “sorcerer’s garlic”. Now garlic is identified as one of the herbs that sprang up under Satan’s foot when he took his first steps after the Fall; and as everyone knows, it’s a specific against vampires. Why would this herb be so important? I have no clue, but I’d love some answers.
Paul Theroux: Two Stars
“When I was a boy–and even later–these two women [Liz Taylor and Marilyn Monroe] represented for me the throbbing epitome of feminine beauty and sexual attraction,” Theroux writes. The Monroe piece was written after an auction of her items; except for a few telling details–“She had bought herself a few expensive dresses, confirming her true size, 35-22-35”–there’s not much in the way of startling insight. The Liz profile, conversely, is fascinating: perhaps because he’d never written celebrity pieces before, Paul Theroux brought his travel writer’s eye to bear on Taylor, with quirky results. It detours into an exploration of the truly weird relationship between Michael Jackson and Taylor, Liz playing Wendy to the pederast pop star’s Peter Pan.
Elizabeth David: Of Pageants and Picnics
Since this collection is restricted to David’s own writing, it doesn’t contain this description by her editor, Jill Norman: “She liked to discuss her work as it developed, and so eating in her kitchen, at what she called her ‘picnic lunches’, was always a delight. She usually provided small dishes of whatever she was working on – Spanish tortilla or pâté perhaps, and always homemade bread and a glass of wine. The piles of books and papers on the table were pushed aside to make room to eat.” It was that last detail–the piles of books pushed aside to make room to eat–that sent me in search of all of David’s writings; I knew that here was a food writer after my own heart, stomach, and mind. The selection of pieces here is pleasant but not indicative of the range of David’s writings. On the other hand, if you need to know how to cook wild mushrooms, or rabbit, or conversely, why figs and cream cheese make an excellent, easy dessert–this one’s for you.