book review

Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe by Bill Bryson

Neither Here nor There: Travels in EuropeNeither Here nor There: Travels in Europe by Bill Bryson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When John Steinbeck, who wrote The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, and Travels with Charley: In Search of America, met a young man in traveling across America in his converted camping car named Rocinante, he met a young man who longed to travel to Europe with the idealization of the continent as he had seen in magazines and books. Steinbeck, being already weary of the existential dealings on the road, advised him, “What’s the need when the world is conveniently at your fingertips in colors without all those travel-related hassles? You can see the world in books and films and still keep your ideal images of Europe.” Which is exactly why Bill Bryson, an American- born British writer renowned for his great sense of wit and superb command of the English language, decided to embark on his journey once again twenty years after he and his pal Katz backpacked across Europe. Bryson wanted to see Europe in itself with a tabula rosa and write something about the cultures that seemed at once so different and yet so oddly similar in his own eyes. The result is the touchy-feely, impetuously hilarious, and astonishingly insightful Neither Here Nor There.

Bryson’s journey began and ended in the two geographical outposts of Europe, Hammerfest and Istanbul. By virtue of his narrative both so inviting and vivid with the use of languages both colloquial and literal that are so characteristic of his writing style, readers will easily and willingly follow his train of travel through the chapters, as he first takes us to Hammerfest to watch the beautiful shimmering gossamer of Northern Lights. We find Bryson feeling not-so-attractive while sitting on a bench at a park in Copenhagen, where all people looked handsome and beautiful. Such existential estrangement became heightened in Belgium, for all along he felt homesick, reminiscing about an old diner in Iowa and its cantankerous but hearty old waitress he frequented. In Amsterdam, he was concerned about the country’s “oddly wearisome” social conventions in regard of its complacency toward untenable political stance under the banner of tolerance. We see Bryson in the streets of Stockholm disappointed in the perfect socialist country littered and defiled by wastes mindlessly thrown away anywhere by its civilized residents without a shade of shame.

And who would not but sympathize with Bryson’s pathos in Florence? Here in this City of Flowers, Bryson saw the ubiquitous Gypsies importune everyone, with their haggardly clothed little children as an instrument for orating their poverty to passers-by at which Bryson was righteously indignant. He questioned himself why the police were not making any efforts to stop the Gypsies from harassing people. Further in Austria, we feel for him as his idealization of Austria as the epitome of all things European was ungraciously punctured by unfriendly services, an irritatingly slow mode of business operation, and a lack of charming coffeehouses where he could rest his spent body and spirit for a time. What a Don Quixote-like journey full of episodes  it was.

Bryson’s cultural notes of each country he visited were, however, devoid of malicious sarcasm or jingoistic ignorance of its customs or social conventions. Things that he experienced in his travel in Europe was a clash of cultures he came from – originally Iowa, The U.S. and England afterwards – and cultures he had imagined in his mind, all of which spellbound him like a Boy in Wonderland. In fact, what fascinated him in Europe was his discovery that the world could be full of variety in which there were many different ways of doing essentially identical things, such as eating and drinking and buying movie tickets. Unlike other travel writers who only write about the sunny sides of the countries and peoples in their interests, Bryson is unafraid of telling readers his observations through his experience with a certain kind of fraternal or avuncular affection added by his trademark wits wonderfully interwoven with intelligence and humanism.

The travel ended in Istanbul with his hope of seeing more of the world, his everlasting wanderlust still luring with a vision of Asia across the Bosporus Bridge. He’s all up for the unforseeable happenings awaiting for him to encounter because that’s the glory of foreign travel, a travel to a terra ingonita where anyone can become a stranger, a wanderer blissfully ignorant of almost anything. To Bryson, the whole existence of traveler is to be constructed by a series of instantaneous guesses and endless actions. Notwithstanding all the woes of a lone traveler who was culture-bound, Bryson’s travels in Europe was something of his experience in Wonderland filled with a great sense of childlike wonder and appreciation of the wonders of each country in its own colors. Neither Here Nor There is his tale of veni vidi, vici experience and entertaining accounts of the world through his eyes with amusing and telling details resembling none other than themselves.

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Poetry

Ballad of Dido and Aeneas

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Aeneas leaves Dido courtesy of pinterest
From a land ravaged by a wooden horse
with a golden apple for the fairest of 
the divine beauties appearing to a prince
so young, so impetuous in judgment thereof,
There came a poor beautiful stranger rugged but
destined for the supernal fate to rule the mortal
to the beautiful eyes of a maiden queen ethereal
in beauty, graceful in act, and hapless in love. 

Blindsided by Juno's machination, swept by passion 
growing strong, growing stronger for the stranger, 
the queen bade him with tears and roses in succession
day and night, in desperate attempt to keep his presence,
his body and his soul, all but an entreaty so futile, so forlorn,
with a promise of her kingdom and her fidelity in return 
for nothing but his surrendering of himself to her and herself to him
till the mortal fate was ended, till one had to cross the River of Styx.

Alas, but the queen's to be thwarted, she's to be abandoned
by the divine plan forced by the arrival of Mercury, god of war
whispering to the poor stranger for the imminent departure
for destiny far more magnificent, far more supreme, as dictated
by Jupiter, god of all regions crossing death and life forever
who put forward a divine plan over mortal feelings however pitiable.
Thus did the stranger set to sail the seas full of perils ever more.

The queen defied, she cried, she pleaded, but all ended in nought
as the poor stranger was to depart cruelly with no tender words of love
that's planted, nourished, and admired by the queen so now distraught
by his betrayal of her love with her plea wreathed in tears and flowers.
Now her love became her poison consuming all of her ever more,
Now he became her foe ravishing all of her in surrender of love.

But what of it when all's ended in a sea of heartaches thousand times, 
with no reason to reign as a queen without her lover by her side?
Nothing, nothing's to remedy her spirit that's broken thousand times,
for nothing, nothing would console the lonely queen in cruel abandonment,
but the last will to burn her body and soul consumed in madness of passion
on an ancient funeral pyre that engulfed every part of her whispering
to her departing spirit that love would come never more - Nevermore!


  • Postscript: Upon reading the story about Dido and Aeneas from the Aeneid, I was so inspired to write about her pathos of love. Hence is the creation of this poem. Poor Dido… How cruel Aeneas was.

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book review

The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic by Darby Penney

51emoQ2iSAL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic by Darby Penney

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I believe that reality is always better than fiction in truth of events and artifacts that accompany the stories. Besides, if such story chimes the bell of my emotion even in the faintest decibel, I dive into it. In this regard, this book was a sure thing to read about people who were inflicted with “sacred disease” -as termed by Hippocrates – how they got there and what they were really like as individuals with dreams, memories, hopes, and wishes.

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One of the suitcases found in Willard Psychiatric Center courtesy of phaidon.com

Hundreds of derelict suitcases came into light when Willard Psychiatric Center in upstate New York were closed in 1995, ending its century long history of a public mental institution. Each suitcase has a story to tell with pictures, bus/train tickets, diaries, letters, and even teacups contained herein. In the eyes of the author, it was like the fateful revelation of the outcry of the people who had come to live in the hospital. What I have found in reading this book is that many of the patients do not seem mad or needful of being institutionalized. Many of them suffer from loneliness, abandonment, and ill treatments from others. To my consternation, if a spouse or a family member was regarded irksome, bothersome, and troublesome, a ticket to the lifelong institualization was a sine qua non solution to get rid of the person forthwith.

A truly powerful testimony to the dignity of the people who found themselves on the edges of society, The Lives They Left Behind is comprised of heart-wrenching accounts of those whose lives were immortalized in the artifacts they forgot to claim ever more; that there is only a thin layer of difference between those within and without gives rise to requisite re-examination of what constitutes normalcy of behaviors as “socially and culturally” accepted because in one way or another we all carry a certain degree of “madness” within -for better or worse.

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book review

The Rise of Fido : Book review on Dogs by Raymond Coppinger

513eG+OX1CL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Dogs: A New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior and Evolution by Raymond Coppinger

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

We claim to love dogs, and yet we know so little about them. We long for their unconditional affection, but we are ignorant of their needs and our faults altogether. Moreover, we like to think dogs as wolves and believe it so. Since I am a kind of person who says hello to a dog I encounter in the streets, this book caught my eyes and mind to know more about dogs, a beautifully different organism worthy of our attention and care, and to find out how they got their way based upon scientific and cultural examinations of dogs.

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Raymond and Lorna Coppinger with their fido friend courtesy of google

This book, written principally by Raymond Coppinger, professor of biology at Hampshire College, a former sled dog racing champion, is unique among many other books about dogs I have read in terms of its scientific bases of anthropological and behavioral studies of canine familiaris, i.e., the dog. The most significant fact about this book is that the author forthwith and forthright argues that dogs are not direct descendants of canis lupus, the wolf. Furthermore, he counters Darwinian evolutionary theory based upon the three factors of anthropological evidence, behavioral ecology, and Belyaev’s tamed foxes.

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Pemba Village Dogs courtesy of marinebiologist.com

To begin with, the author takes readers to to a village of Pemba, an island off the East African coast in the territory of Tanzania, where the inhabitants still live on a boundary between hunting-gathering of the Mesolithic period and agriculture of the Neolithic period. In Pemba, dogs exemplify village dogs with a prevalent display of the uniformity of shapes, sizes, and colors of the coat, all of which indicate isolated gene pool untainted by any other strain of dog that would introduce a variation in appearance. The Pemba village dogs have co-habituated with their human inhabitants by choosing a niche close to human existence as a place of steady supply of food, safety, and reproduction. This leads to a conclusion that they are the descendants of the first evolved domestic dogs from the Mesolithic period of human history.

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Dmitri Belyaev and his tamed Silver Foxes courtesy of es.turopedia.com

First, people created a new niche called the village. Then some curious wolves came to the niche and gained access to a new food source. These wolves adapted to this new convenient niche are “genetically” predisposed to show less “flight” distance than those of their wild peers and become tameable. A Russian geneticist named Dmitri Belyaev’s long term experiment with the Russian Silver Foxes corroborates this domestication process: after 18 generations (36 years on our evolutionary clock), the foxes became naturally tamed and remarkably resembled dogs in appearance and temperament.

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Characteristics of  juvenile features of wolf pups courtesy of evolution-slideshow.net

Moreover, Coppinger ardently disagrees to the wolf-turned-dog theory. Rather, dogs descended from a “wolf-like” species that became extinct is their paramount contention to the widely accepted opinion. In addition, dogs possess characteristics of neoteny by retaining wolfish juvenile shapes and features, such as round and short facial shape with floppy ears, and care-soliciting behaviors into adulthood. That is, by keeping the cute and lovable appearance of wolf puppies into adulthood, the behavioral developments of dogs still remain in perpetual juvenile stage, which makes themselves well adapted to the human inhibition and thus able to survive in their niches for their safe existence.

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A Little heartbeat at my feet courtesy of naver.com

Dogs are one of the fewest animals who share our lives and require our tender attention and care for the reasons concerning the above and most of all, the feelings we get when we see the eyes of dogs that are so soulful and insightful. We need to take a close look at our canine fellow creatures in their true form based upon their biological needs and behavioral tendencies, to love them as they are, and treat them as a wonderful creature of nature that has been with us for so many years in our human history.

Don’t forget the little heartbeat when a dog is at our feet. Never forget that they are only dogs.

Poetry

Cycle of Love

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Dance at Bougival (1883) – Pierre-Auguste Renoir courtesy of https://learnodo-newtonic.com

To love is,

To know, to think, to fancy, to cherish,
to search,

To want, to run, to fall, to face,
to reach,

To arrive, to see, to feel, to free
to quench,

To give, to listen, to light, to bring,
to match,

To surrender to one another.