Telling Time: A Review of The Time Keeper and Italian Ways


It’s strange how books find us. In a way, it is similar to way we find mates. There are patterns in both. Take two books I read recently. Mitch Albom’s The Time Keeper TimeKeeper_cover_frontand Tim Parks’ Italian Ways: On and Off the Rails from Milan to Palmero. cover_railI read the Time Keeper to complete the December club read for Goodreads’ Ladies & Literature.  Italian Ways: On and Off the Rails from Milan to Palmero I read to familiarize myself with Italy. It is part of my initial research for a thriller that I am planning on after Short Lines to Asia.

Both books (one a novel and the other non-fiction) deal with time, how we use time. Albom’s is the story of the invention of time by a boy who eventually grows up and gets married only to find one day that the love of his life is dying. What does the husband want to do? Of course, stop the very thing he learned how to tell — time. He races up what appears to be the fictionalized Tower of Babel babel (credit wikipedia) in the effort to reach the heavens with his request and in so doing enters his own personalized version of hell (to me this appears to be a takeoff from Dante dante. As Father Time, he learns that the only way to help his wife is to help others in their quest to either essentially speed up time or slow or stop it. The moral of The Time Keeper is that time cannot be wished away (for the youth intent on committing suicide). Neither can we completely stop the ravages of time. Yes, we can do things to delay our death or make life more palatable during our lifetimes. But, time is like Mother Nature and the Golden Rule. There is always a penalty for abuse. What goes around…will come around.

The trouble I had with The Time Keeper is that it was like reading Aesop’s Fables–just a longer, more complex version of stories told in it. The main characters did not stand out to me. What did was the unnamed people that milled around or interacted with the main characters. To me, they were interesting.

This might have been why I found Italian Ways to be a better read than the Time Keeper. In Italian Ways, Parks tells of his journeys via train in Italy. At different times, he is a commuter and a traveler.

I can relate to his experiences. One summer I worked in Washington, D.C. as a summer intern. To get to work, I rode the Metro. D.C.’s system is a great system. Yes, it has breakdowns and delays and cars are often crowded to the point of standing. Unlike a lot of systems, however, including Atlanta’s Marta, the Metro is relatively safe, is easy to use, goes to many major points, both in the suburbs and the city, and is used by tourists and commuters, alike, and not just during working hours.

Parks relates how people use time on the trains, how the train system functions in its use of time and what I call the rushing, rushing so you can get to somewhere only to wait. Parks does not pull any punches. A friend calls it, “What comes up comes out.” He weaves in the history of places he visits,  Trenitalia (the Italy train system) and the competition between it and other systems, whether in Europe or inside of Italy.

At the end, Parks poses the question, “How do we get people to use the local railways?” In his travels, particularly in Southern Italy, local rail service exists, but just barely. It is underfunded in terms of  money, equipment, and most of all, attention. Any attention the local systems get is window dressing, funds for pesticides as an example when the engines, cars, and tracks are often of a vintage variety and in sore need of repair and more likely, replacement. The heart of the problem? According to Parks, it is the highlighting of the Trentitalia system at the expense of all other systems and Italians’ love of the automobile.

Parks frames this love of the automobile as the love of personal freedom, the ability to go and do whenever and whatever. He realizes that this is not endemic to Italy. It is worldwide. Atlanta is famous for its love of their automobiles. Build a highway and they will travel on it. Thanks to this mentality, I can get to one office that is 17 miles away in twenty minutes with no heavy traffic because someone thought it would be nice to have a four lane divided highway out in the middle of nowhere. The 55 miles per hour is what I find frustrating. No traffic and it’s 55. Why not 65?

To cure the problem, society as a whole would have to change its perception as to what is important. This is the story raised in Dawn of the Anthropocene. (Again the similarity in the books I read!) Parks asks the question Seilstad sought to answer. “And even if there were a swing in opinion across the world…How could massive decisions penalizing car travel be made worldwide when the world is composed of hundreds of separate competing nations, some democracies and some not, all at different stages of development?”

If there is an answer, it will not be one person but rather a collective answer (and no, I am not advocating for the Borg). One day maybe, it will be found…