Road to Katmandu

I learned recently that in the 60s and 70s there were a lot of hippies or freaks, as at least some of them preferred to call themselves, who took a trip overland from Istanbul to Kathmandu, a route you really wouldn’t want to take today:  Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India.  There is a street in Kathmandu still referred to as Freak Street because that’s where a lot of them spent their time.   The ones who made it.   Most of them had very little money and took cheap buses and hitched.   Patrick Marnham’s book describes his own journey in 1968 in such unsentimental detail that I don’t understand why anyone who read it would want to recreate it, except, of course, if you really wanted hashish.  Back then, once you hit Afghanistan, the drugs were cheap, plentiful and no one cared if you did them.   This changed in the 70s along with great political upheaval in much of the region.   How big a factor the unknown thousands of freaks were in what followed is not known.   How many went?  How many died?  Or got sick and went home?  Who knows?   If you Google hippie overland trail, you’ll find a number of websites which share the stories of some people who went back then.   There aren’t too many books on the subject and some of them are written the way you’d think a freak who’d been stoned a lot would write.  Marnham is clear-eyed and interesting although his style is so reporter-like that it is hard at first to figure out that most of the way there’s only him and his friend John Perkins, which I wouldn’t have known without the intro to the 2005 edition.   He fictionalized it so there’s no knowing how much is true, but it doesn’t read like fiction.


I can think of few things I want to do less than hitchhike through the desert in a truck in danger of breaking down any minute not knowing when or what your next meal might be.  This is a level of freedom I’m not comfortable with.   Presumably the hash made it tolerable, but there are so many things bad things that can and did happen:  extortionate fares, broken down vehicles, washed out roads, scorpions, sexual advances, miscommunication, theft, jail, freezing, broiling heat, no water, the list is almost endless and the joys seem few and far between.   There don’t seem to be any remarkable sites, beautiful buildings, there is, I guess some scenery, but the book has no pictures, so again, Google is your friend.  There are a lot of great pictures out there which will give you a good idea of what it was like.  Marnham describes many days, but how many he does not say.  He also spends little time in Kathmandu, which was one of the reasons I picked the book.   Knowing a bit about what it used to be like was one of the things I was hoping to learn.  Instead he describes how Rat spent his time there – Rat, the fictional character.   He also describes some of the people who wound up in the hospital and one who died.  As I said earlier, he doesn’t sugarcoat it and apparently lots of people still wanted to do this.   As he says in the foreword to the 2005 edition, “Can people who eat so badly they cannot sell their own blood be held responsible for anything?”  Probably not.  But I’m not sure what it would mean to hold them responsible.  If you’re interested in Kathmandu, I’d give this one a miss, but if you’re interested in what it was like to travel the hippie trail East, it’s a good choice.

This fulfills the far-flung location book for the Wild Goose Chase and is my sixth (ack!) of the increasingly unlikely #20booksofsummer.



The Sign of (the) Four

I’ve already finished one of the sixteen, which looks really good, except it’s a cheat.  I read 80% of it a couple weeks ago.  Still, it’s nice to be on track, however briefly.   The Sign of Four was Arthur Conan Doyle’s second Sherlock Holmes novel, published in 1890, and thus counts as my 19th century Classic for the classics challenge.  I think I would have been a lot mre gripped if I hadn’t remembered the story quite well after starting it.  I think I saw a stage adaptation a few years back, that might be why this one was so easily recalled.  It’s a story of a young woman with a mysterious benefactor who has been sending her one extremely fine pearl a year to right some sort of wrong.  She believes this has something to do with her father who had been stationed out in India.  He returned and then disappeared.   She engages Holmes to assist her in meeting the mysterious benefactor.  They all set out and the story includes missing Indian treasure, a mysterious locked room murder, the Baker Street Irregulars, and a hunt for a ship on the Thames.   I have a few quibbles with the story, but they are fairly minor and I’ll leave them out.   Once again, I don’t have much to say.   Perhaps I should enter my quibbles.  They are spoilers though, so don’t read below the picture if you want to remain unspoilt.

Not the best picture, but all the others were dinky


So, spoilers.   Why is there a trap door in the attic?   It serves no purpose that I can guess except to give a route into the secret treasure.   Ridiculous.

They can see a handkerchief being waved across the river, but can’t see the boat?   Really?

It’s nice no one accuses Mary and Watson of keeping the treasure for themselves.

Hardened convicts entrust a crooked guard with the location of their missing treasure.   Right.   My friend and I used to call this ‘plot simple’ as in they are simpletons because the plot requires this to happen and the author couldn’t think of a good way to do it.

End of spoilers.


An enjoyable story and full of drug use.   I wonder what Doyle was thinking when he made Holmes a drug addict.   It certainly is a humanizing flaw and maybe it didn’t seem like such a huge one then.   I know almost nothing about him, maybe he did this himself, or knew someone.  There are probably a million books on this.  I don’t see, at this rate, how he’s going to survive another 50 stories.


#20Booksofsummer and Epoch 3

So, finally I’ve finished Epoch 3 of the Wilkie Collins bio I was supposedly reading along with Alice and her friends who finished this part maybe a month ago?   It’s not entirely my fault, though on vacation there was much to do: swimming, miniature golf, games, eating, jigsaw, even a bit of tennis.   Reading definitely took a back seat.   But now I am determined to renew my commitment both to the 20 books, despite the likely impossibility of finishing 16 books in 43 days.   One book every two and a half days.   Admittedly, highly unlikely.   I have started some of them though and can substitute shorter books for others, so, yeah, sure, I can do this.

A couple weeks ago I rethought my list and decided it lacked books that were part of my reading plans for the year and that it was a mistake to push all that reading into the last third of the year, so I made a new list (unbeknownst to you, dear reader) and I would say I had been working on that except that all the so-called work has been acquiring them, not reading them.  I have taken a picture of the ones I have in hard copy.   There are some lovely, lovely covers,   IMG_0111

I think they’re all fairly legible.  I’m only reading Part 2 of A Dance to the Music of Time.   The one in the middle is Michael Chabon’s Maps and Legends, chosen because it fulfills The Wild Goose Chase requirement for something you take on a search and it’s been on my shelf for ages.


Then there’s my incredibly belated report on part 3 of Wilkie Collins’ life.   Going quite well for Wilkie except he’s got gout so bad he sometimes can’t walk upstairs.  In between bouts of gout he publishes some very popular books, including The Woman in White, goes on innumerable holidays and rest cures, lives with a woman and her daughter, and continues hanging out with pal Dickens, his partner in hitting the town and catching venereal diseases.  I really do not have much to say about this.  Dickens apparently burnt all or most of his letters.   Both of them apparently subscribing to an idea similar to Mae West’s dictum, “Keep a diary and some day it’ll keep you.”   Very annoying for those of us fond of knowing the truth about people.    It’s also difficult because of the state of medicine at the time.   Wilkie thinks his gout is attacking his brain, which is not possible, but clearly something was going on.  Taking all that laudanum probably didn’t help.   I’m quite sure the cabbage leaves in silk poultices didn’t either.   I’m about 3/5 through this and hope to finish it as one of the 20, but I will be mixing it up with other things as the readalong is over and there’s no hurry now.   Sorry, Alice and everyone!   I’ll try to do better next time.

The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade

Oh, my God, what a dreadful book.   Why did anyone publish it?   Only about 300 pages and it just took forever.  Painful.   Incredibly painful.   It takes place on a Mississippi steamer called Fidele.   First, there’s a deaf guy.   Then there’s an African American beggar with injured or no legs, not sure.  Then there’s a stream of con men including one who sells herbal medicine.   No one has any names until about three-quarters of the way through the book and then I’m not sure why they do.   Calling themselves Frank and Charlie and getting into the least intelligent philosophical discussion I’ve ever heard.   Frank maintains he has confidence in all humanity.   Doesn’t believe any ill of anyone could be true.   Or so he says.   We never really figure out what Frank’s deal is because all he does is jabber on, tell his new friend Charlie at one point he has no money, bilks a barber out of a shave and talk to an old man about the Bible.

What does any of it mean?   I’m sure I don’t know.   There’s no story.  No characters.   Some people get bilked.  What on earth was he thinking?  The word ‘confidence’ is uttered as many times as Ann Radcliffe used ‘sublime’ in Mysteries of Udolpho.   If he wanted people to learn to avoid scams, he could have written a short pamphlet on it.   Not this endless blithering.   After this he stopped writing prose for 25 years and all I can think is, good.   It’s a shame when someone who writes as well as Melville can, puts together something like this.   According to Wikipedia, Mark Winsome (a philosopher) is based on Emerson, Egbert is Thoreau and Charlie Noble was Hawthorne.    This helps me not at all.  Mark Winsome/Egbert has a discussion with Frank, but neither of their opinions seems to me worth a shot of powder.  Winsome/Emerson’s philosophy seems to boil down to you shouldn’t loan a friend money.  Surely there was more to Emerson than that?   And the guy Frank whose talking to him just seems like a con-man who hasn’t gotten around to the point yet.   Apparently I’m just not bright enough to get it.

But the important thing is I read it (Why? You ask.  Because by the time I decided it was a giant waste of time and nothing meaningful was ever going to happen, I was too far in to quite during the #20booksofsummer.  This also qualifies as a 19th century classic. And all I can say is , thank goodness that’s over.

I’ve read a few other people on this ‘masterpiece’ and it sounds like he’s saying everyone’s either a mark or a patsy, which is far too simplistic a view of life.  I suspect he was suffering from depression and feeling like a patsy.   I still can’t believe it was published.  It’s the weirdest combination of good writing and bad I think I’ve ever read.  One person pointed out the opening, which is engaging and you wonder who that guy is and what’s going to happen.  Answer: nothing and no one we ever see again.  Apologies to those that love this book.  For me, it’s the new worst classic.  I’d rather reread Lord Jim, Frankenstein and Mysteries of Udolpho than one chapter of The Confidence Man.  Okay, maybe two chapters.

Wilkie-a-long Epoch 2

I’m so far behind!   I didn’t even realize since it’s been a very busy few weeks, I conveniently forgot I’m trailing by two weeks, almost three, in a 4 week readalong.   Not much I can do about it now.   And not much I can say about Epoch 2.   It would be nice to have some pithy comment or wry observation, but mainly I just think – it was fine.   It’s a good read.  Wilkie lead an interesting life.   Getting into his bromance with Chuck Dickens, whoring around, getting VD.   At least he didn’t have a wife he was bringing that home to.   I would have loved to see them in a show together.   Wouldn’t that be a great time travel adventure?   Wilkie is writing books and getting published, holidaying with Dickens with or without his family, touring France and Italy and generally having too good a time.   When he gets gouty, he cuts back to a spartan 3 glasses of wine a day.    By the end of the epoch he’s got a girlfriend we haven’t met.

While an enjoyable book, I can’t help feeling there’s something missing.   Anyone else feeling this?   I can’t put my finger on it.   Analysis?   Depth?   I’m not sure.   Reading Chernow’s Hamilton was such a great experience, but maybe that’s because of Hamilton’s personality and circumstances?   This one just seems sort of a catalog of what he did.   Maybe I want more…  historical context?  I don’t know.  I know more about Victorian England I think, than I did about Colonial America.   It’s certainly not fair to expect every writer to equal Chernow’s Hamilton.   Hopefully, I can focus on it and finish less than 3 weeks after everyone else!

“I love you, man!”


Whoops!  Was supposed to read Epochs 2 & 3.    So, yeah.   Way behind.   Well, Imma just leave this here anyway.

The Nine Tailors

Slogging through The Confidence Man, I just couldn’t take it any more and turned with untold relief to Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Nine Tailors.  So readable.   Characters!   Plot!  Oh, joy!   I should’ve been reading Wilkie, but well, I didn’t much.  I got pulled into the Wimsey story.  I saw the Ian Carmichael version on TV long ago, but could only remember a bit of the end.  The crime, the criminal(s), the characters all forgotten.  There’s no Harriet Vane in this one.   I miss her.   There’s a loveable rector and his wife, fine upstanding country folk, a spunky teenage girl, missing emeralds from a long unsolved robbery and a lot of bell-ringing.   More than you probably want to know about that, but it doesn’t slow things down much.  The atmosphere is great and Wimsey is in top form first helping out as substitute bell-ringer and then investigating the mysterious appearance of a corpse in the wrong grave.

I wish this was the cover of my copy

The only trouble is at the end, thinking it over, it all seems way more complicated than necessary and that certain people act in ways that are simply way too improbable.  Trying to imagine certain characters doing what they did, well, I don’t buy it, but it’s an enjoyable ride and I’m not going to let that worry me.  Very few Sayers left.  Which makes me sad. but what can you do?

This counts as a Classic with a number in the title.  I don’t think it counts for any of my other challenges.