Friday, 6 July 2012

Books again for a change

The Country Where No One Ever Dies Presented as a novel, Albanian writer Ornela Vorpsi's slim tome is probably best described as a collection of short stories. From chapter to chapter, the identity of the narrator seems to shift, while the precise setting of each episode often remains unclear. As a result, it has an uncertain fabulous atmosphere familiar from some of Ismail Kadare's work: each narrative might be archetypal, might be hearsay. A bitingly unsentimental portrait of both communist Albania and traditional patriarchy, it's also a bitter lament for a lost home.

Rules of the Road Mike Manson's hippy road-trip novel set in the Balkans - good fun, with lots of well-turned jokes, mostly at the expense of dim-witted Westerners (which makes a change). One of the few works of fiction (in English) to mention the Han i Hotit border crossing post in northern Albania.

Women Who Become Men Hugely readable anthropological study of the 'sworn virgins' of northern Albania by Antonia Young. I should probably have read this about six years ago.

Slow Winter Alex Hickman pretends to be a 'war correspondent' in Sarajevo before travelling to Albania to organise an international business conference just as Albania's about to plunge into the notorious 'pyramid lending scheme' disaster. He must have been there around the same time as Robert Carver (of The Accursed Mountains), but while he's not averse to the odd Albanianist comment, Hickman does at least give the place and, more importantly, its population the benefit of the doubt.

The Tao of Travel Paul Theroux makes a concerted effort to become the voice of contemporary travel writing with what is, against all expectations, quite an entertaining compendium - although, to be honest, his wants-to-have-his-cake-and-eat-it stance that travel writing doesn't have ethical consequences (in its portrayal of 'others') but is also key to our understanding of the world and ourselves does start to grate after a while. Come on, Theroux, is it a worthwhile genre or not, eh? This kind of dithering is possibly why I can't watch his son Louis's equally want-it-can't-have-it documentaries on TV.

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