Saturday, 22 May 2010

Another journey East - to Burma with a piano

May's choice of book was The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason, the story of the journey (both physical and spiritual?) that an unassuming piano tuner makes to the remote Shan hills of Burma in the late 19th century. His mission is to tune a piano for a charismatic British military doctor who has created his own little kingdom up the Salween river - some parallels with Heart of Darkness here perhaps. The tuner becomes bewitched with the orient - and with a local woman - becoming almost fatalistically entwined in the colonial conflict.

The book is beautifully written with good characterisation, it's enticing and intriguing and the group all enjoyed it. But that's not to say we felt we understood it! What was all that about the Man With One Story? What exactly was the enigmatic Carroll up to? The book was at it's weakest when it trotted out the detail of the politics, and at it's best when it explored the hidden depths of the characters. More questions than answers, but we enjoyed the journey.

Fascinating look at a lost Afghanistan

In April the group read my choice - Full Tilt by Dervla Murphy, the story of her cycle trip from Ireland to India in the 196os. I first read this book when I was a teenager and Dervla has been a favourite author ever since. She takes to the road with the minimum of baggage (well, she'll happily carry a load of books, and on this trip took a gun as well, but she takes so little clothes that she ends up with her backside literally hanging out of her threadbare breeks after awhile.

This journey took her through a lot of countries, but Afghanistan is the star of the book - Dervla falls in love with this magical and timeless place. It has to be said that she tends to be treated as an honorary male on her travels (barring some unfortunate tussles with dodgy pervs in Azerbajan) so she notices but perhaps doesn't fully appreciate the awful situation of women in Afghanistan. The author's cheery no-nonsense determination to go wherever she pleases, putting up with the most uncomfortable and hair-raising situations, make this an entertaining read. She is also a writer of great intellect and, I'm glad to say, is still going strong today - still travelling parts of the world that are strictly off the tourist trail, and getting ever angrier about the way we're screwing places up.