Caliph’s House

Shah, Tahir. The Caliph’s House: a Year in Casablanca. New York: Bantam Dell Books, 2006.

Reason read: Morocco’s independence was obtained in November.

Everyone has a story of an event in their lives; how they met their sparkling spouse, how they came into their fascinating occupation, how they started an odd hobby for which they are extremely passionate. The most interesting stories are the ones that are life changing; an abrupt 180 degree turn from where they used to be. A hobby turning into a business so they can quit their dead end job, for example. Tahir Shah has such a story in The Caliph’s House. The London based travel writer was looking to move to Morocco. Tired of grey weather and bland food, he wanted to get back to the culture of his ancestry. After many false starts a classmate of his mother’s contacted him out of the blue in 2004 with an offer he couldn’t refuse: the sale of Dar Khalifa, the once home of a Caliph, a spiritual leader of Casablanca. Even though this is a story about living through a house renovation it goes beyond tiles and plumbing. Shah explores what it means to buy and restore a house in a post 911 society. Morocco struggles to be a paradise of tolerance. At the same time, Shah becomes intimately and intensely aware of “how things get done” when he hires a man of ill repute to be his right hand man. Encounters with thieves, possible murderers, even the mob are the norm. But, it is the exorcism that readers all wait for with breath held. Who in their right mind would slaughter a goat in every room of a mansion-sized abode?

Most startling takeaway – even Casablanca has a mafia.

Quote to quote, “There was a sadness in the still of the dusk” (p 1). Yes! I have always felt the melancholy amid the gloaming, especially on Monhegan. I can’t explain it.
Some funny quotes, “We were both blinkered by our upbringings” (p 105), “The nervous man pulled the lid off one of the toilets and fishes out half a dozen samples of cedar” (p 294), “But it was the first time I had hired a troupe of exorcists, and I didn’t know the protocol” (p 314), and “I like my meat to be anonymous, severed from its connection to life” (p 318). Don’t we all?

Author fact: Shah has a few videos on YouTube, including one of a tour of Dar Khalifa that is pretty cool. He talks about having to placate the Jinns and how he ended up having a grand exorcism with twenty-four exorcists.

Book trivia: the illustrations by Laura Hartman Maestro are wonderful, but what is most impressive is the assumed photograph of Dar Khalifa.

Nancy said: Pearl just describes a tiny bit of the plot.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the chapter called “So We/I Bought or Built a House In…” (p 210).


Playing For Pizza

Grisham, John. Playing for Pizza. New York: Bantam Dell, 2007.

Reason read: the Verdi Fest in Parma is traditionally held in October.

When we first meet Rick Dockery he is laid up in a hospital bed after a nasty American Football Conference championship game collision. After this latest concussion third string quarterback Dockery’s career is more than over. His agent, Arnie, is told over and over no one will touch him with a ten foot pole. Don’t even ask. Like many athletes with a less than stellar career, but the passion to play, Dockery heads to another country to continue playing the game he loves so much. He arrives in Italy with the stereotypical chip on his shoulder. Where are the cheerleaders? In his mind, it’s only a matter of time before he’ll be back in the States, playing for the NFL…or so he dreams. What follows is Dockery’s slow acceptance of Italy, his education of what Europeans consider football, and (gulp) what true loyalty means. Grisham keeps the plot light and uncomplicated for a quick and easy read.

Confession: when Dockery gets tangled up in a budding romance with a woman already involved in a seven year relationship I thought I would see more drama. Not so. I think that plot line was designed to introduce opera and not much else.

As an aside, Grisham’s descriptions Italy made me want to plan a visit. I made a list of every region and landmark he mentioned.

Funny quote, “Later he learned that Sly and Trey had been driven away by a drunk uncle who couldn’t find Parma” (p 101).

Author fact: Grisham makes a huge departure from his legal mysteries with Playing for Pizza but he didn’t go into it blind. Parma really does have a football team with a few American players.

Book trivia: Playing for Pizza is short enough to read in a weekend.

Nancy said: Nancy called Playing for Pizza “captivating” and described the plot a little.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the chapter simply called “Parma” (p 172).


African Laughter

Lessing, Doris. African Laughter: Four Visits to Zimbabwe.New York: Harper Collins, 1992.

Reason read: to celebrate Lessing’s birth month in October.

Even though Doris Lessing was born to British parents in Iran and didn’t move to Southern Rhodesia until she was six, Lessing called the African continent her homeland. She spent twenty-four years there until she moved to London, England. African Laughter is a very personal memoir about four trips back to Zimbabwe after being exiled for twenty-five years.
Interestingly enough, the title African Laughter comes from Lessing’s joy of hearing Africans laugh. “The marvelous African laughter born somewhere in the gut, seizing the whole body with good-humoured philosophy” (p 80).

Confessional: there were times when I got lost in Lessing’s chronology. An example: Lessing is visiting her brother and describing a scene languishing on the verandah. Her brother’s two Alsatians (popular dogs as pets in Africa) are lounging nearby. One dog in particular, Sheba, hungers for Lessing’s female attentions. Lessing then seamlessly goes on to describe how Sheba finally attached herself to her male owner only to be strangled to death in some loose wire at the end of a fence. Because she doesn’t reference two periods in time I wasn’t sure when this happened. Subsequent mentions of poor Sheba are depressing, knowing her sad demise.

Lines I liked, “All writers know the state of trying to remember what actually happened, rather than what was invented, or half invented, a meld of truth and fiction” (p 72) and “With a library and perhaps some sympathetic adult to advise them, there in nothing in the world they cannot study” ( p 206).

Author fact: Lessing was born in Iran in 1919.

Book trivia: African Laughter has some great insight into other books Lessing has written, like The Golden Notebook.

Nancy said: Nancy mentioned African Laughter as one of the books she found “engrossing” after she had written the “Dreaming of Africa” section in Book Lust.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the chapter called “Zipping Through Zimbabwe/Roaming Rhodesia” (p 268).


Oxford Book of Oxford

Morris, Jan, ed. The Oxford Book of Oxford. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Reason read: Morris’s birth month is in October. Read in her honor.

The grand and illustrious Oxford University. What can you aay about an institution which has its foundation firmly planted in the Middle Ages? Jan Morris carefully selected the best documentation across history to give readers an accurate portrayal of one of the world’s oldest and respected institutions. Using a comprehensive inclusion of journal entries, letters, poetry, newspaper articles, institution records and recollections, memoirs and memories Oxford University from 1200 – 1945 is exposed and celebrated.
Favorite anecdotes:

  • Professor Buckland, the legendary carnivore supposedly ate the one of the Kings of France’s carefully preserved heart.
  • Theologian and president of Magdalen for 63 years, Martin Routh, was extremely funny.

Quotes to quote, “Proud Prelate, you know what you were before I made you; if you do not immediately comply with my request, by G-d I will unfrock you. Elizabeth.” (p 46), “I really think, if anyone should ask me what qualifications were necessary for Trinity College, I should say there was only one, Drink, drink, drink” (p 182).

Author fact: Jan also wrote under the name James and was transgender. She underwent sex “reassignment” in 1972, way before Bruce Jenner made it a television event.

Book trivia: The Oxford Book of Oxford has some great photographs of the buildings that make up Oxford. My copy had a stamp from the San Mateo Public Library which on the book pocket read, “Questions answered.” I wish they could tell me the one exception to Morris’s dedication!

Nancy said: The Oxford Book of Oxford “is a good place to get an overview of the city” (Book Lust To Go p 170). I would slightly disagree inasmuch that The Oxford Book of Oxford (EDITED by Morris) is predominantly about the institution and the colleges that make up Oxford rather than the city itself. I would like to think Pearl meant to include the travel book simply called Oxford written BY Morris. Maybe she did. At the end of the chapter she references Morris’s Oxford which is a different book and yet NOT in the index of Book Lust To Go.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the chapter called “Oxford” (p 170). See my ramblings in “Nancy said” for more.


Always a Distant Anchorage

Roth, Hal. Always a Distant Anchorage. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1988.

Reason read: October is Library Friend month. I had to borrow this book from Byfield, Massachusetts; a town I have never heard of before.

Hal and Margaret Roth had an epic mission to sail around the world. Good thing they had the kind of relationship that could withstand being trapped together on a boat for nearly two years (46 months)! Their boat, Whisper, was a 10.7 meters long, black hulled fiberglass vessel that weighed 7.2 tons.
Their journey took them from the coast of Maine to Bermuda and the Virgin Islands, though the Panama Canal, across the South Pacific, winding through Tahiti and Fiji, crossing the Coral Sea and Australia, Bali, Africa, the Red Sea, the Mediterranean, and finally back through the Atlantic and the Caribbean, ending in Somes Sound, Maine. The amazing thing is, Roth did not come from a sailing background. Luckily, he was a gifted writer and this is his account of that epic journey (with excerpts from Margaret’s journal thrown in). Weather, fishing, the mechanics of boats and sailing, the culture and customs of each community and port, getting to know and establishing relationships with other sailors, even being shipwrecked on coral reef and observing drug runners. Everything Roth writes about is fascinating. He loves the word “squally.”

As an aside, Roth’s description of Greece makes me want to visit even more.

Quote to giggle over: from Margaret’s journal, “I don’t know why men have to swear when they fix things” (p 81).
Another quote, “I don’t mind the prayers and the ritual washing that used up my buckets of fresh water, but I wished the pilot had made some sign to me that he was giving up steering” (p 219). One last quote, “What was life anyway but a collection of new timbers, the seasoning and shaping into a useful hull, the long voyage, a gradual collapse, and the final rotting away (p 303)?

Author fact: Roth also wrote We Followed Odysseus which I will be reading a few years.

Book trivia: the hand drawn maps are fantastic, but the photographs are great too! I wish there had been more of the couple. On the back cover there is a photograph I must describe because it is so intimate and lovely: Margaret is cradled between Hal’s legs. She is clutching his bare foot while he has one arm casually slung over her shoulder. His hand barely brushes her breast…

Nancy said: Always a Distant Anchorage is “the perfect choice for those who dream of one big voyage” (p 201).

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the chapter called “See the Sea” (p 201).


The Most Offending Soul Alive

Heimann, Judith M. The Most Offending Soul Alive: Tom Harrisson and His Remarkable Life. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 19997.

Reason read: Tom Harrisson’s birth month is September. Read in his honor.

Tom Harrisson lived from 1911 to 1976 and was, as Heimann puts it, “an adventurer who lived among cannibals.” That in and of itself is enough to write a book about but Tom was also a man who even as a child loved to push buttons. He had an ongoing battle with hierarchy and thrived on seeing what he could get away with on a daily basis. In his adult life, often drunk and disorderly, it was his brilliant mind that made him forgivable to most people; everyone except his own father. His brilliance is the only reason I can think of for his friend to turn a blind eye when Tom begins a blatantly obvious affair with the friend’s wife. Aside from “stealing women from their men” as the Grateful Dead said, Tom’s passion was researching flora and fauna and traveled to such places as Sarawak and New Hebrides to study new species. Later, when he met the cannibals, he became interested in sociology and became an expert at observing culture. Even though the rest of The Most Offending Soul Alive isn’t as interesting Heimann goes on to colorfully detail the rest of Harrisson’s  life, ending with his fatal accident in January 1976. While not much else has been written about Harrisson otherwise, I feel that Heimann’s is a bias laden, no-stone-left-unturned kind of biography.

Author fact: Tom Harrisson was a neighbor of Heimann’s on Borneo.

Book trivia: The Most Offending Soul Alive is chock full of interesting photographs.

Nancy said: Judith Heimann’s biography “brings him [Harrisson] to vivid life” (Book Lust To Go p 39).

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the chapter called “Borneo and Sarawak” (p 38).


Life and Times of Miami Beach

Armbruster, Ann. The Life and Times of Miami Beach. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995.

Reason read: Hurricane Irma blew into town on September 10th, 2017.

The Life and Times of Miami Beach would make a good coffee table book; one of those gorgeous to look at and flip through (even if you don’t have the time to read) books. The photography (in both black and white and color) is spectacular.
We begin in 1900. Miami Beach was nothing but spits of sand and swamp. By 1915 keen-eyed entrepreneur Carl Fisher looked at the bug and alligator infested mangroves and said resolutely why not? Why not create a vacation hot spot out of an uninhabited peninsula? In the beginning business was slow. Marjory Stoneman Douglas wasn’t impressed with a tourist season that was only two months long.
By the 1920s Miami Beach was a real estate developer’s dream. Hotel growth exploded with expensive, over-the-top, grandiose places to stay. Prohibition was a joke as rum runners smuggled alcohol in disguised as fish and shipped it inland marketed as grapefruits or tomatoes. Swim suits could be rented for twenty five cents.
In the 1930s the big names wanted to be seen in Miami Beach. Names like Firestone, Ford, Maytag, Honeywell, Florsheim, Hoover, and Hertz. Eleanor Roosevelt and Charles Lindbergh came to visit.
In the 1940s Miami became a haven for military men.
By the late ’50s and early ’60s Miami Beach’s identity was changing again with visits from tourists from all over. Over two million people were flocking to the Beach paradise. Jackie Gleason, the Beatles, Debbie Reynolds and Desi Arnaz (to name a few) added to the publicity.
Armbruster ends her coffee table book with the wrap up “1970s to present” present means the ’80s). The last chapter is a quick four pages dedicated to Miami Beach’s flagging economy and reputation and its rebirth and redevelopment.

As an aside, Phish had a New Year’s Eve run in Miami Beach a few years ago. I didn’t attend but I heard the show was epic.

Author fact: Armbruster has no outward connection to Miami. According to her bio she was born in Michigan, raised in Ohio, and studied in New York. My guess is that someone she is related to has the connection to Miami.

Book trivia: The Life and Times of Miami Beach can be called a gorgeous book with over 200 photographs and illustrations.

Nancy said: Nancy didn’t say anything specific about Armbruster’s book.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the obvious chapter called “Miami and Environs” (p 145).