03 June 2010

Back and Forth Like a Rubber Band

We’ve been traveling again. Not globally, not locally, just Britain, Denmark, Italy. As if attached to a rubber band (“elastico” in Italian) we keep bouncing back to Europe.

I can report the Euro is down, the ash has ceased ashing all over everything, and two weeks ago Spring hit England like a Luftwaffe attack. An attack of hay fever, certainly. The British winter was endless and cold, then a sudden accession of heat and sunshine caused every tree in Hyde Park, Green Park and all the other parks to burst into bloom on one dangerous day.

Through cracked and bleeding eyeballs I think I saw swans with cygnets, ducks with ducklings, and a lovely gin-and-tonic sitting on a table near my dripping nose. Call it Hyde Park fever. Hang up if it calls on you.

Somehow, as always, we took along books and purchased others. This is where an E-book reader really could come in handy – Rick Steves and Lonely Planet at your fingertips. No need to tear out the London section from an old Fodor’s guide and toss the rest.

Still, no E-book reader in the world could have presented the fascinating record of voyages past presented by the lending library onboard the National Geographic Explorer. Previous passengers left behind a sort of mind map of those who take part in what the Geographic people call “expeditions.”

Those gently rocking shelves held a number of pastel-jacketed fluffy novels starring heartsick females, plenty of good-for-you books like “Field Guide to the Night Skies,” and mysteries charming and polite, or manly and bloody. These are the books people bring onboard, but never want to see again.

I donated my copy of Roddy Doyle’s 1999 novel “A Star Called Henry” not because I never want to see it again, but because my suitcase needed liposuction. I hope someone on a future expedition enjoys reading this novel about 1916 Ireland as much as I did.

“A Star Called Henry” is an entertaining and adventurous novel, both serious and painful. It’s part of a trilogy that concludes with the worthwhile but much less engrossing novel, “The Dead Republic.” Here, former Irish rebel Henry Smart peers backwards at a misspent life filled with adventure. Having run off to America, the Hollywood director John Ford rescues Smart and plans a film about his spectacular life, but that doesn’t work out well. Returned to Ireland, elements of the Provisional IRA take up Henry Smart as a long-lost but totally spurious “hero” of the revolution. There are moments in “The Dead Republic” as funny or poignant as anything in the first, rambunctious, tale, but overall it’s a bit plodding. The energy that burst out in “A Star Called Henry” cools off in a small town near Dublin, inhabited by a very old man.

I still have the middle novel to read, “Oh, Play That Thing,” and by all reports this one is great fun. Henry Smart starts a new life in America. He meets mobsters, peddles hooch, and partners with Louis Armstrong.

In trade for the Roddy Doyle book I snagged a copy of “Kavalier & Clay” by Michael Chabon, another book I’ve been meaning to read since it was published ten years ago. It has the mind-numbing overabundance of an early novel, spilling energy and asides all over the place. It is a multi-person love story, a history of the Golden Age of Comic Books, and a chronicle of Jewish angst before and during World War Two. No wonder so many have enjoyed this one.

Then there were the Italian versions of Mickey Mouse (“Topolino”) and Uncle Scrooge (“Zio Paperone”) I picked up in a bargain box in Venice, and Michelin guides, and grammars and workbooks and Andrew Marr’s “The Making of Modern Britain” and the writers we met and the things we did.

But that’s for another time, children. Glad to be back!


“A Star Called Henry” by Roddy Doyle. Penguin Books paperback $16. ISBN 0143034618.

“Oh, Play That Thing” by Roddy Doyle. Penguin Books paperback $14. ISBN 014303605X.

“The Dead Republic” by Roddy Doyle. Viking Books hard cover $26.95. ISBN 067002177.

I found this Washington Post Book World review of “The Dead Republic” enlightening:

“The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay” by Michael Chabon. Picador paperback $16. ISBN 0312282990.

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