Monday, March 30, 2009

Old Man on a Bike

By Simon Gandolfi.

Old Man On A BikeWhy would a reasonably sane man in his seventies ride the length of Hispanic America on a small motorcycle – a man who is overweight, suffered two minor heart attacks and has a bad back? Stupidity comes to mind…”.  Thus begins Old Man on a Bike, the story of Simon Gandolfi’s epic solo motorcycle trip from Mexico to the tip of South America. 

Gandolfi buys a small 125 cc Honda (a pizza delivery bike) in Veracruz Mexico, and sets out on his 6-month journey, crossing 13 countries and 22,000 kilometres. He has not ridden a motorcycle in a great many years. He is alone. He has a bad heart. But he has a goal – Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego.

Old Man on a Bike is first and foremost a travelogue; the motorcycle simply a means of transportation, a source of periodic humour, and a cause of crises of varying degrees. Gandolfi covers the trip on a day-by-day basis, recounting his experiences as a series of vignettes as he discovers new towns and villages, meets new people of many cultures and stations in life (he speaks fluent Spanish which makes this easier than it would be otherwise), and deals with all the trials and tribulations of a long road trip – including breaking his false teeth on more than one occasion and running out of heart medication.

While the diary format is appropriate, I found Gandolfi’s writing style to be such that I got the sense I was experiencing the trip whilst looking through a soda straw – getting but a very narrow perspective frequently lacking in context. Nonetheless, his ability to engage with the local populace did provide some of the more interesting parts of the book as well as giving the reader a basic understanding of the people and the environments in which they live, and through which he travelled.

Gandolfi makes no secret of his politics or his views on current world events such as the Iraq war and at times it seemed Gandolfi was using the book as his personal soapbox. Whether one agrees with his views or not, I just found the injection of politics to be an unnecessary irritant that contributed nothing to the story of his travels. It is a minor flaw to be sure, but still it bothered me enough to warrant a comment in this review.

So bottom line? I would offer a qualified recommendation for this book. Is it a requisite item for inclusion in any motorcycling library? Not really. But as the story of one man’s voyage, it’s an interesting read and one can’t but admire Gandolfi’s courage for undertaking such a trip at his stage in life.

Monday, March 9, 2009

The Ghost Road

By Pat Barker.

The Ghost RoadThe Ghost Road is the third book in Pat Barker’s First World War Regeneration Trilogy, following Regeneration, and The Eye in the Door.

The Ghost Road picks up the story in the closing days of the war as Dr. Rivers tries to make sense of what has happened and obsesses over whether he has actually helped any of the war wounded in his care. He has done his job, but is sending men who are “cured” back to France to face almost certain further injury or death morally justified? Reminiscences of his childhood and his experiences with the primitive head-hunting tribes of Micronesia provide further insight into his character.

Two of the patients in his care, Billy Prior and the poet Wilfred Owen are among those who go back to the front. Prior has an option to stay in  England but chooses, in fact feels compelled, to return. The details of their last few days of the war at the front are chilling indeed as they try to survive even as talk of an armistice is heavy in the air.

A winner of the 1995 Booker Prize, this book is very good – not quite as good as Regeneration, in my opinion, but a worthy read nonetheless. Furthermore, the reader would be best advised to read the trilogy in sequence, otherwise much of the context and some of the character development would be missed.