Thursday, 18 April 2013

Eyes Bigger Than Your Stomach?

Before greed became morally acceptable in the circles of the Haves as well as many of the Have-Not-Quite-As-Muchs, and we all strove to make it into a commendable contribution to society to demand more and more, we made do with ambition, a much nicer word. I leave you to decide how closely ambition and greed are related; I’d say second-cousins-once-removed, but I’ve definitely seen them in bed together.

As a small child, having not only heard tell about hunger but experienced a definite feeling of hollow tummy, it was my ambition to sit in front of a well-filled plate of food at every mealtime. Mum dished up and, feeling the large, dark, pleading eyes of her first live-born and only child upon her, she was often more generous than she should have been. “Are you sure you can manage that?”, was her permanent refrain, and “You must eat it up. Dad will be cross if food is wasted.” The food was never wasted; Dad remembered too well a time when shortages were the norm and great inventiveness and imagination were needed to bring it to the table. He always finished my leftovers. But the phrases “eyes too large for your stomach?” and “bitten off more than you can chew?” were a constant reminder that there was something wrong with me and his disapproving tone left me feeling vaguely uneasy and grubby.

My table habits have changed since then, and plates piled high put me off altogether. I feel full before I even start eating. I wish I could say the same about books. There’s been a perilously unstable pile of books sitting on top of a large wooden box in my study for weeks, mostly poetry books, I thought. Each new one I took off the shelves to flick through ended up on the pile. Notepads, bookmarks, magazines, folders of notes, all found a ’temporary’ home on the box. With Kelly coming to clean up after us, the pile needed sorting.

Besides poetry books, which have all gone back on the shelves, I was surprised to find these which had slipped my mind, all non-fiction, with bookmarks keeping my place between the read and unread chapters.

In 'Die Deutsche Seele' the writers survey and research 64 themes of "Germanness,” from ‘Abendstille, via Bauhaus and Beer,  Doktor Faust, Gemuetlichkeit, Heimat, Music,  Luther, Schadenfreude, Father Rhine, to Weihnachtsmarkt, and the eternal German longing for the abyss.
I must not lose this book again, it’s wonderful for dipping into whenever homesickness overwhelms me. It makes the homesickness worse, but in a perverse way that feels good.
The American writer Bill Bryson is a lightweight. He had the idea for the 600+ pages of ‘At Home' (and many of his other books) while trawling his own life for copy. He appears to be looking around hisVictorian rectory in Norfolk, and finding each room the inspiration for an amusing - and possibly well-researched - chapter on generations of people going quietly about their business in his house and others like it. This too is a book which can be abandoned and returned to at any chapter. Bryson is never boring, but never truly gripping either. Amusing is the best I can say; I’ll save the rest of it for a rainy day when I have nothing better to do.
A.C. Grayling’s ‘Among the Dead Cities’ asks if the targeting of civilians in war is ever justified. Grayling is an English philosopher and Master of  New College of the Humanities, London. It is a book for those interested not only in the Second World War and the destruction of cities in Germany and Japan, but also the ethics of warfare in a world where governments still seek to justify the bombing of civilian targets. Published in 2006, the book is relevant today and examines the lessons we can learn about how people should behave in a world of tension and moral confusion. In spite of the subject matter the book reads well and I have promised myself that I will pick it up again soon and consume great platefuls of it in each sitting.

Simon Winder professes to have a ‘crazed love affair’ with Germany, a country he has visited many times over the years. According to the sleeve notes ‘he is mesmerized by its cuisine, its architecture and its fairy tale landscape. He is equally passionate about the region’s history, folklore, monarchs and changing borders'. Winder describes Germany’s past afresh, taking in the story from the shaggy world of the ancient forests right through to the Nazi catastrophy in the 1930s, in an accessible and startlingly vivid account of a tortured but also brilliant country, which has at different times revealed the best and the worst aspects of Europe’s culture.

Since I was given Germania nearly a year ago I have picked it up and thrown it down in disgust many times. It lacks gravitas, historical cohesion and rigorous research, and yet . . . . the man has a warped sense of humour which appeals to me.

There is nothing funny about Sebald. How ‘Vertigo’ came to be buried at the bottom of the pile is incomprehensible to me. My plate, when I first started to read it, must have been full to overflowing, thus making me turn to
a form of entertainment other than reading.

I can always read Sebald and my great regret is that he didn’t live to write more of his compelling, deceptively simple, eccentric masterpieces. Part fiction, part travelogue, Sebald pursues his solitary course from England to Italy, combining, along the way, Stendhal, the Great Fire of London, a story by Kafka and a closed-down pizzeria in Verona.

I would get back to any one of these books without delay, if it weren’t for the fact that I am in the middle of consuming two others: Richard Russo’s ‘Straight Man’ which makes me want to live among American college professors on a campus somewhere in small-town USA. It’s the only novel I have on the go and I am enjoying it tremendously. I’ll only put it down to pick another chapter of the second book currently on my plate: Oliver Burkeman’s ‘The Antidote’,  self-styled ‘Bracing Detox for the Self-Help Junkie’. Never having been a self-help addict the book shouldn’t make sense to me, but it does. Burkeman gives woolly old ‘positive thinking’ rather than actual thinking a well-aimed kick in the teeth. His ideas on how to stop frantically striving for happiness and actually getting closer to a semblance of it by letting go suit me down to the ground.

Bon Appétit.


  1. Oh great...just if I don't have enough in my bedroom to still read you have to tempt me with more!

  2. A weeks worth of worthy posts here. The pain of remembering.... Enjoyable...the very def of 'Nostalgia'


  3. I had to smile about "want to live among American college professors on a campus somewhere in small-town USA" because I've often thought I'd like to do just that. Had I been offered an opportunity, I'd probably have been equally happy on a campus somewhere in small-town Canada, and, of course, like many young people growing up in the 1960s, I always wanted to live in Oxford or Cambridge.
    Now I am easily exhausted, physically, emotionally, and intellectually, so lightweight authors can keep me entertained, providing they use the English language well.
    However, I would love to lay hands on "The Antidote" because it sounds perfect. All my adult life I've been surrounded by those "positive thinkers" and even otherwise sane people who actually believed that pasting pictures of refrigerators, cars, sailboats, etc., onto a large piece of colored cardboard and hanging it on the bedroom wall would make those things mysteriously materialize. And I knew people in the San Francisco Bay area who would believe anything at all if a self-styled guru said it.

  4. Thank you for the great tips! Vertigo--I too paused in the middle. I love Sebald, but feel a vein of meloncholy running through each passage, bringing one close to the abyss, but in a good way.

    Bryson is best when he's moving around something larger than a a country or two.

    Die Deutsche Seele--I'm going to look for that! Positive thinking isn't exactly in the German psyche--yayyyy!

  5. Thanks to you I can now describe my greed for books as being an ambition to read more....

  6. Winder's warped sense of humor certainly kept me going to the last page--though I can well imagine how it might put anyone, like you, who is knowledgeable, right off. Sebald is wonderful, even though I don't always have good receptors for his points of reference. I have piles of books at all times in states of unread. Periodically I have to return most of them to the shelves and start fresh. There are few things I enjoy as much as reading, but at the same time few things I seem to have a harder time settling to. Incomprehensible to me that this should be the case, but there it is!

  7. What a wonderful and diverse bunch of books on your pile! Yes, I confess to book greed, too. But it really is a healthy obsession! Thanks for sharing this list. It's always fun to hear what writers I enjoy love to read!

  8. Hallo Friko,
    schön, dass Dir das Buch "Die deutsche Seele" so sehr gefallen hat, dass Du es in diesem Post heraus stellst. Derzeit lese ich übrigens ein ähnlich strukturiertes Buch (von A bis Z) über Belgien. Die Autorin ist Bloggerin (Leen Huet). Ist exzellent geschrieben, allerdings auf Niederländisch. Über England besitze ich übrigens ein älteres Taschenbuch aus der Piper-Reihe "77 mal England" von Leonhardt. Gefällt mir auch klasse. Habe halt nur mit England ein gewisses Problem, dass ich des öfteren in den Niederlanden, Belgien oder Frankreich war, während ich noch nie in England war.

    Gruß Dieter

  9. Germans long for the abyss? I'm curious.

    No food wasted in this house either. Cushion's scream when he sees a teaspoon of rice washed down the sink makes ME wish for an abyss.

  10. I've got piles of books on my piles of books - and let's not even talk about the e-reader. Meanwhile I've got 2 copies of Wittgenstein's 'Investigations', one at home and one at work. I read on my lunch breaks, make a note of the passages I like, then read them again at home later. By this method I'll be done in a couple of months.

    I've eyed Sebald's books with curiosity several times....

  11. I don't know about pasting pictures of a sports car on your fridge to elicit receiving one, but I do know that the movement of positive thinking has helped me tremendously in my life; especially during a prolonged illness 10 years ago. It was easy to spiral down, and understanding how my thinking contributed to feeling even worse was a revelation I still use today. Understanding my thought processes worked far better than incessant begging to the big guy upstairs. Thank you, self-help.

  12. I agree with your assessment of Bryson. He is consistently entertaining, but only moderately so. If you like Richard Russo, you might try Bridge of Sighs - or Nobody's Fool, which I prefer. All set in small-town USA. Nobody's Fool was also made into a movie, with Paul Newman I think. Two other American authors you might like are Calvin Trillin, who writes about food, slices of life, and interesting people and incidents - some grim, some humorous. He is a far better writer than Bryson. Also, Joyce Carol Oates writes fiction about life in the small towns of upstate New York, among both professional and working class folk.

  13. You have a broad selection of reading material. Among the Dead Cities sounds very interesting. I'll have to check the library.

  14. Dear Friko, I have to confess that I do not know any of those writers, except Sebald by name - and him I surely will check out. Please advise me on which of his books to buy first.
    As for the food - growing up after the war as well, it would have been considered a real bad thing to waste food. My sister once threw a piece of bread into the coal bucket, she was maybe five or six and I remember the anger of my father who caught her. Sadly today there are so many human beings in the world who don't have food at all and are in no position to waste it.

    And Friko, I would gladly take your offer about the seeds! :-)

  15. Hi Friko - I can relate to your piles ... and bookshelves filled to the brim ... but your reading matter is more highbrow than mine - though I get tempted ... but I do need to read with a notebook and pencil beside me .. and preferably not get distracted before I've finished.

    Being a post war baby - I know the 'waste not want not' maxim ... and was glad I never experienced want, as I know you did. I was lucky .. but I'm sure the older members of the family experienced many hardships ...

    My pile is overflowing .. and after the A - Z .. I'm going to settle and read a few of them .. if only to clear the shelves somewhat!

    Cheers Hilary

    1. I love hearing about other people's 'must-read' piles as it reassures me that I'm not the only one whose eyes are bigger than her stomach where books are concerned. The difference is that I'm not a grazer. When I start a book I prefer to read it right through before starting another - perhaps because of all the childhood admonitions to finish my first course before I could have my pudding. :-)

  16. I do not like this endless quest for happiness as if we are entitled to it. I settle for contentment instead and accept the harsher times, and anything better than that is icing on the cake. Happiness is a very momentary thing. You don't chase it, it comes to you by itself.

  17. Friko, I have some tall stacks of books awaiting me attention, and completely identified with your comparing the appetite for books to food. Another well read friend has recommended Sebald's writing to me, and so I know that eventually I will be adding another book to one of my towers. Do you advise my reading his books in the order of their writing?


  18. I have a half-finished Sebald on my Kindle. Will get back to him soon. I finished the book on Christianity (MacCullough) and now looking for "what's next?" When the New York Review of Books arrived this morning, I read the reviews and didn't order anything...yet.

    The Bryson book looks interesting...(get thee behind me).

    I think your Mother knew my mother. We worried about the starving children in China. After the war, Mom was very concerned about starving children. We had relatives in the Netherlands.

    David's once wealthy grandfather wrote from the Gulag..."I no longer have ulcers. I have nothing to eat either."

  19. Enjoy your pile of books, Friko. Life holds no greater pleasure, I think. The most interesting, whimsical and moving book I have read about the second world war is Vikram Seth's Two Lives. I wonder if you have read it? - A very unusual perspective based on letters he found in his Uncle's attic. Happy reading.

  20. I remember when I was a child some parents forced their children to empty the plate even if it lasted 3 h. My father was like that, but my mother behind his back emptied my plate instead ! Now I am against forcing children to eat, but wasting too much food I don't like either. And that is terrible with my grandson, he has a good appetite but sometimes it happens that he doesn't even start a sandwich because he is not hungry. OK for me he could eat it later, but the parents throw it immediately in the bin ! Same with apple pieces if you wrap them in alu foil they don't get brown, but they again the apple ends in the bin. It's a shame !

  21. You have a feast for bibliophiles. I, too must always have a stack, though mine are now stacked electronically. Less clutter! Your post brought back memories of when my mother would look at my uneaten food and remind me of the starving children of China.

  22. Ah, yes, the to-be-read pile....I have one too. A big one. I sometimes have nightmares about a headline in the paper reading, "Missing local woman found under collapsed stack of books ... "

  23. We had to stay at the table and finish our food, no matter how long it took. We always managed, except when it was liver and onions, ugh.

    No liver and onions in your book pile!


  24. The one thing I don't winnow down is the books. I never mind when one steals part of my day. Stepping into a story. And I sometimes eye the books of others covetously.

  25. My father's nightly mantra was "take all you want, but, eat all you take". It still works for me.

    Glad to see I'm not the only one with such teetering piles. Do read Home over time.

  26. You remind me of bookcase shelves filled with volumes partially read, to be read and fully read. The latter I intended to write about for my blog and have in a few instances, but just not edited or published my thoughts. The enthusiasm and momentum to share them seems to have waned. All sorts of colorful tags peek out from the edge of these books pages, placed there when read earlier because the words held special significance. Perhaps someday I'll return to them when the mood strikes me.

  27. Oh yes
    books everywhere in this cottage.
    On my desk, by my chair, nightstand,
    gathering on a sideboard and also on the floor.
    I am trying to not buy anymore books until
    I read what is here in my home.
    My weakness

  28. I certainly am a book nerd – or book junkie with books in every rooms. Apart for Bill Bryson I do not know the other authors you mentioned. But since you finished by saying Bon Appetit – that reminded me that last month I read My Life in France by Julia Child which made me read A Covert Affair about her meeting her husband Paul Child while working for the OSS during WW2. So then I read more about that and just finished Sisterhood of Spies – the Women of the OSS. I have also been reading several old books which were published in England, once a year from 1952 until 1975. They are called “The Saturday Book” and offer a miscellany of art, literature and comment on British life during WW2 and after. They include short stories like Evelyn Waugh, Graham Green, George Orwell, etc. I have four issues so far and am on the lookout for more copies. Have you heard of them? They were edited by Leonard Russell.

  29. Russo’s ‘Straight Man’? I take it as a tip, the more so because 'campus novel' is smth I know very well. Your comment on it reminded of Robert Waller's "Slow Waltz in Cedar Bend". D'you know this book? And his 'The Bridges of Madison County'? This one is to savour!
    As for greed for books, I wouldn't refer it to cardinal sins. If only my students possessed it!
    Right now no time for reading, we're preparing for Shakespeare's party. Can you guess its date? :) Have an inspiring week, dear Friko!

  30. Rather embarrassingly , my eyes have never proved bigger than my stomach . There must be gannets in the family tree , somewhere .

  31. I am a Sebald worshipper to the point I think I've read every word he's written. Oh why did he die? His next 100 books would have equally fascinating and deceptively simple as you so well put it.

    Some of your others I've put on a list.

    I am amongst the toppling towers also.....what bliss, really, what bliss.


  32. Thanks for this giving us a taste of what you have been reading! I have made notes. Now, let's talk about Straight Man. I loved that book! I would laugh out loud at times as I read the book. Having worked in an American University, I could relate all to well with what he had to say. As soon as I finished the book, I sent it off to my daughter-in-law who was working on her PhD. She also could not put it down, and related to it all too well.

  33. I too often have several books on the go. You have an interesting collection there.

  34. I read two or three books at a time. Can't help it. I have read several Bryson books but didn't know about that one. I'll have to look for it.

  35. I have two on the go - neither learned tomes; one I'm enjoying very much - the other I'm struggling with. I sometimes wonder about Book Club books that I struggle with - is life too short?


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