September’s book: The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron

This month’s theme was travel. I don’t know the scores on the doors, but the eventual winner was:

The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron

In 1933 the delightfully eccentric Robert Byron set out on a journey through the Middle East via Beirut, Jerusalem, Baghdad and Teheran to Oxiana -the country of the Oxus, the ancient name for the river Amu Darya which forms part of the border between Afghanistan and the Soviet Union. His arrival at his destination, the legendary tower of Qabus, although a wonder in itself, it not nearly so amazing as the thoroughly captivating, at times zany, record of his adventures.

In addition to its entertainment value, The Road to Oxiana also serves as a rare account of the architectural treasures of a region now inaccessible to most Western travellers. When Paul Fussell “rediscovered” The Road to Oxiana in his recent book Abroad, he whetted the appetite of a whole new generation of readers. In his new introduction, written especially for this volume, Fussell writes: “Reading the book is like stumbling into a modern museum of literary kinds presided over by a benign if eccentric curator. Here armchair travellers will find newspaper clippings, public signs and notices, official forms, letters, diary entries, essays on current politics, lyric passages, historical and archaeological dissertations, brief travel narratives (usually of comic-awful delays and disasters), and–the triumph of the book–at least twenty superb comic dialogues, some of them virtually playlets, complete with stage directions and musical scoring.”

Other books on the shortlist were:

  • A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby
  • The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
  • The Great Railway Bazaar / Dark Star Safari
  • A Year in Provence by Paul Theroux
  • Round Ireland with a Fridge by Tony Hawks
  • At First They Killed my Father by Loung Ung
  • West with the Night by Beryl Markham
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August’s meeting

Our benevolent dictator was busy working on her international expansion aspirations and so was unable to lead book club this month. Luckily for the team, the wonderful (and not at all) Bad Kelly gamely agreed to step up the mark. By all accounts, great fun was had by all and everyone was very well behaved (why can’t you be like that all the time, team 😉 )

Anyway, please see below the synopsis of the meeting for those (like me) who were unable to make it.

(Ed’s note: I managed to restrain myself from adding in “U”s everywhere… aren’t you proud of me?!)

Our August book with a theme of humor was “Me Talk Pretty One Day” by David Sedaris.  The group generally liked it well enough with an average rating of 6.38 but there was a common criticism that while there are many laugh out loud moments, the book was not very memorable.  One very strong advocate for the book (especially in audio form) argued that we need to take humor more seriously and that Sedaris opened his life for everyone to see.

Comments made while rating the book sparked a discussion of the importance of understanding language and culture in order to understand humor.  Everyone seemed to agree that you know you are fluent in a second language when humor is understood.  David Sedaris has a very particular brand of humor (maybe specific to the U.S.?) which is very self depreciating.  Not everyone appreciated this quality but everyone seemed to agree that he wasn’t being cruel to himself or especially to his family.

How would you react if your family member wanted to write about you from his/her perspective?  This question produced some gasps but one member of the group had a personal experience of reading the blog of a sibling in which she could recognize events of her life in broad terms but none of the events happened the way she remembered!  Another suggested that maybe if written in a humorous way, it would not feel so personal.

David’s dad’s desperation to convince his children to share his interests with little success did not strike anyone as very unusual however it lead to a discussion of Buffalo Bill’s diamonds.  (It is sufficient to say that we wandered off topic a few times.)

A very funny description in the book was of American’s visiting Europe.  Do we stand out this much?  Consensus is that Europeans dress more casually than in previous decades and this is no longer a tell BUT Americans still have a tendency to be the loudest groups on the train and that we sometimes have a bad habit of assuming people around us speak English.  Then, of course we talked about expectations of customer service and drunk Germans.  (Again off topic.)

The wonderful thing about discussing this book with an international group is that we all have the experience of learning, thinking and living in a second language.  Everyone could relate to making very funny mistakes – some of the best ones cannot be shared here.  But if you ever need to get rid of a telemarketer, tell him that you are giving birth to your baby!

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