5 Characteristics I Look for in Travel Literature (w/ My List to Date)

Recently, I’ve begun to read at least one piece of literature from each of the countries I visit. While I’ve done this for the last several countries I’ve been to, now I’m going back to fill in the gaps from past travel.

 

I don’t want to be doctrinaire about the books I choose, but I’ve learned a little about what I find the most beneficial. While some people who do this insist on reading a novel from each country, I’ve been much more open to a range of forms, including: poetry, short stories, and — in a case or two — creative non-fiction. One reason I’m flexible this way is that the novel isn’t the basic unit of literature everywhere in the world. I don’t want to read a pop crime novel published by an expat that offers zero insight into culture just because that’s the only novel I can get my hands on in English. Short story collections have proven at least as insightful as novels because one sees more lead characters put into more diverse situations, and poetry can be as well — as long as it gives a sense of place and people.

 

I should also point out that I’ve violated almost all of these suggestions when something caught my eye — often to great effect. #5 and #1 are really the only ones upon which I insist.

 

5.) Offers insight into the culture of the country at hand. I don’t want to sound like a literary fiction snob. I read a lot of genre fiction and the occasional commercial fiction, but this is one area where I find literary fiction is best. In large part this is because literary fiction tends to be character-driven and that depth of character usually transmits some insight into culture. When I went to Nepal I read Samrat Upadhyay’s Mad Country [short stories] and learned a great deal about the people of Nepal from various walks of life.

 

4.) Authored by a national of said country and set there as well.  The second part (set in the country) seems like it would be non-negotiable, but I’ve certainly violated the first part  (local author) and can imagine violating the second (local setting) as well. The key is that it must do #5 (cultural insight, that’s the point after all.) To give an example of a violation of the local author proviso, for the time being at least, I’m going with George Orwell’s Burmese Days as my pick for Myanmar (Burma.) I may change that at some point, but it definitely offered insight about more than one of the items on this list.

 

To give an example of how one might violate the setting clause and still benefit, I’ve had Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Tablerecommended to me for a Sri Lankan book. It features a Sri Lankan boy on a ship headed from Colombo to England and thus (as I understand it) is only briefly set in Sri Lanka. Sometimes, when a national is abroad, one gains even more cultural insight — i.e. it becomes easier to see culture through the state of contrast. (It turns out that I’m reading another novel set in Sri Lanka entitled Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilaka, which promises to offer me insight into not only Sri Lanka, but also into the craziness that is the sport of cricket.

 

3.) Teaches me about some historical happenings of the country in question. In some sense this is always true because even a contemporary novel deals in history by the time it’s published. However, I tend to prefer a time-frame during which something interesting was going on in the country, but not so far into the past that there is disconnect with the people I interact with in my travels. For example, for Vietnam, I recently read Novel Without A Namewhich features a North Vietnamese soldier as a protagonist, and it’s set during the last days of the war with America.

 

2.) Exposes me to a diverse set of characters. It’s a definite plus if the book shows how more than one element of society lives. A great example of this is Gagamba, a book by F. Sionil Jose, that I read in conjunction with my trip to the Philippines. In it, one peeks into the lives of rich and poor alike, as well as seeing Filipinos who’ve been living abroad and expats living in the Philippines, all this contrast makes the shadowy shapes of culture clearer.

 

1.) It’s a good read. It’s as simple as that. It must be a book I’d want to read regardless of whether I was trying to check off a box on travel literature.

 

Here’s a list of countries I’ve been to with my selections for that country — if I have one. There are some countries (e.g. USA, Hungary, India, China, Japan, and the United Kingdom) from which I’ve read a lot, but I’ll stick to presenting one that is an exemplar vis-a-vis the criteria above.

 

I’d love to receive recommendations, particularly for those countries I don’t have anything for yet.

 

Austria: The Tobacconist (recommended to me, not yet read.)

Belize:

Botswana:

Cambodia: First They Killed My Father  (I’ve read some fiction set here, but this non-fiction is the best.)

Canada: Surfacing (not yet read)

China: Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out

Czech Republic: The Good Soldier Svejk

Estonia: The Man Who Spoke Snakish (In progress. An unconventional choice as it’s genre fiction, but it came highly recommended and has not disappointed.)

Finland: The Year of the Hare (not yet read)

Guatemala: The President  (not yet read)

Hungary: Cold Days

India: The Guide

Japan: Narrow Road to the Interior

Kenya: A Grain of Wheat

Malaysia:

Mexico: Selected Poems of Octavio Paz

Mongolia: The Blue Sky

Myanmar (Burma): Burmese Days

Nepal: Mad Country

Netherlands:
Peru: Death in the Andes

Philippines: Gagamba

Singapore: Inheritance (in progress; another odd choice as the family that this novel presents is Punjabi, though they live in Singapore. and their lives are shaped by that locale. Some places, like Singapore and the UAE, have a lot of immigrants and it’s only fair to consider them through that lens.)

Slovakia:

Slovenia: I Saw Her That Night (not yet read)

Sri Lanka: Chinaman (in progress)

Thailand:

UAE: Temporary People (not yet read)

United Kingdom: A Christmas Carol

United States: Blood Meridian

Vietnam: Novel Without a Name

Zambia:

BOOK REVIEW: Life from Elsewhere from Pushkin Press

Life from Elsewhere: Journeys Through World LiteratureLife from Elsewhere: Journeys Through World Literature by Amit Chaudhuri

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Amazon page

“Life from Elsewhere” is a collection of essays written by writers from around the world on culture, multiculturalism, and the struggles of life (and writing) in a culture-infused world. The book consists of an introduction and ten essays by authors from India, Congo, Argentina / Spain, China, Israel, Syria, Palestine, Iran, Poland, Russia, and Turkey. It’s being put out to celebrate the 10 year anniversary of a program that seeks to translate more global literature into English (English PEN’s Writers in Translation.)

This was a hard work to rate, and so you may want to take the number of stars with a grain of salt. If you’re part of the niche audience of contemporary world literature devotees, you may love this book from beginning to end. For a more general reader—such as myself–there are golden nuggets scattered among a field of shiny gravel. I found the essays by Asmaa al-Ghul (i.e. “When Ideas Fall in Line”) and Andrey Kurkov (i.e. “Sea of Voices”) to be fascinating, even for the general reader. The former tells the story of a journalist who reaped a firestorm by posting a Facebook picture sans veil, but it offers insight into life under blockade in Gaza. The latter offers a Russian author’s experience of traveling in the Middle East, and the incidences of clash of cultures it offers was thought-provoking.

The countries represented by authors in this book are well chosen. Authors were chosen from locales that would have once been underrepresented in such a work. However, one might question the fact that half of the essays are from countries of the Middle East. While this may seem odd, one must admit that a writer or artist in most of the Middle East faces challenges that a writer from Osaka, Sao Paulo, or Prague would not. This isn’t only addressed in the al-Ghul essay mentioned above, but also in pieces such as those by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi (i.e. “Literature: Forbidden, Defied,”) and Elif Shafak (i.e. “A Rallying Cry for Cosmopolitan Europe.”)

I’d recommend this book for ardent devotees of contemporary global literature. Other readers will gain insight into what it’s like to be an artist in a world defined by culture–and particularly fascinating insight into cultures which are threatened by modern literature—and should make up their mind about how fascinating they find said topic. (Otherwise, one may find the book a bit dry.)

View all my reviews

Was the Fukushima-Daiichi Incident the Final Nail in Nuclear Energy’s Coffin?

Today is the two-year anniversary of the tsunami that swamped parts of eastern Japan. Among the ongoing effects of this event was a re-chilling of attitudes toward nuclear energy–undoing a thaw that some swore was imminent. The tsunami hit the Fukushima-Daiichi plants and knocked out generators that were needed to run the coolant pumps with the power lines down. In the days after the disaster, the release of radioactivity and explosions of built up hydrogen presented some of the most prominent news stories.

Japan obtained about a third of its energy from nuclear prior to the event. All reactors were shut down in subsequent months, at no small cost to their economy. Eventually, a couple of plants were brought back on-line, providing only a fraction of the electricity of the country’s full fleet of 50+ nuclear plants.The Japanese had plans to add another 15 plants to their reactor fleet at that time, plans that have since vanished.

Even China, the world’s most prolific builder of nuclear plants as of late, had a brief moratorium on nuclear power plant (NPP) construction. However, China seems to have regained its ardor for nuclear power. France, of course, won’t be dissuaded either. However, for much of the rest of the world, doubts remain.

Pictures may be worth a thousand words.

Source: International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Power Reactor Information System (PRIS)

Source: International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Power Reactor Information System (PRIS)

Source: IAEA PRIS

Source: IAEA PRIS

Source: IAEA PRIS

Source: IAEA PRIS


The Nuclear Renaissance and International Security

Edited by Adam N. Stulberg and Matthew Fuhrmann

2013, Available Now

Buy this book

ONLINE RESOURCES
Contents

Contributors

Introduction

5 Minefields of Armageddon for 2013

National Land Image Information, Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transportation & Tourism, Japan

National Land Image Information, Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transportation & Tourism, Japan

1.) Ever heard of the Senkakus? What about Diaoyus? If not, you should look them up. When you’ve been wearing a gas mask for the 33rd day straight, you may want to know about the chunks of rock in the East China Sea that we tripped into nuclear winter over. Simmering tensions between Japan and China have been flaring up over these islands of late. So you’re probably wondering who lives there who’s so important that it’s worth wandering through a minefield that could trigger World War III. If you answered, “absolutely no one,” give yourself a prize.  They’re uninhabited. It’s not the islands themselves that anyone gives a rat’s as about, it’s the ramification they have for underwater drilling rights.

The reader may accuse me of hyperbole. (Shh! Dont tell anyone, but– of course– that’s what I do.) After all, China has a boldly stated “No First Use” policy. That is, they claim they will not use nukes in a first strike. Given that Japan isn’t a nuclear weapons state (NWS), there doesn’t seem to be much risk. Except that a.) Japan lives under the U.S. nuclear umbrella;  b.) Japan is the non-NWS that could develop nuclear weapons in the shortest time imaginable — they have the material, infrastructure, and technical know-how (okay, Germany is in the same bag); and c.) see #2

KimJongUn3

2.) North Korea conducted its third nuclear test. This presents a risk because: a.) it provides an incentive for Japan to build its own nukes (particularly if faith in the US umbrella wanes.) b.) [and more importantly] Kim Jong Un has too many yes-men, and no one to slap him in his chubby face and say, “are you smoking powdered unicorn horn?” In other words, he doesn’t have a good idea of what he can get away with before the world unleashes a crate of whoop-ass on his sad country. So he wanders in the minefield.

3.) Europe is getting depressed. Fat and happy Europeans are productive and polite. Downtrodden Europeans have been known to swallow some pretty despicable narratives, and– in doing so– drag the world into war. At the moment this seems really far-fetched. These political movements are at best in the political fringe of countries on Europe’s fringe, right? Maybe so. Time will tell.

4.) If America’s economy is crash-landed, everyone is going to be hit by the debris. This will be depressing, see #3 and then multiply globally. Times like these  echo Churchill’s comment, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Any person, company, or government that sees the train coming in the distance but can’t find its way off the tracks can’t be expected to thrive for long.

5.) India and Pakistan, enough said…

BOOK PLUG: The Nuclear Renaissance and International Security

The Nuclear Renaissance and International Security 

Edited by Adam N. Stulberg and Matthew Fuhrmann

2013, Available Now

Buy this book

This is not so much a book review as a shameless plug (I have a chapter in this book.)

Nuclear energy has had a checkered past. From the 1950’s to the 1970’s, there was a massive build up of nuclear power reactors– granted among a fairly small number of nations. Recent decades have seen a drop off in the pursuit of nuclear power among all but a few diehards. This decline resulted from both accidents and unfavorable nuclear power economics (the former exacerbating but not entirely responsible for the latter.) With increasing desire to combat global climate change, there has been renewed interest in nuclear energy as part of a strategy to slow carbon emissions without crippling energy output. However, to date this interest has not turned into large-scale development of nuclear power anywhere except China. After the Fukushima Daiichi accident, even some diehards (e.g. Japan) are reconsidering nuclear power.

This book considers whether there will be a resurgence of nuclear power, if there is what shape it will take, and what the security ramifications of future nuclear power development might be.

Among the many questions addressed in the book are:

1.) Will the future bring more nuclear energy states, or will any expansion take place only within existing nuclear power states?
2.) Why do states supply other countries with nuclear energy technologies, and what are the ramifications of such supply efforts?
3.) Can an International Fuel Bank be successful in reducing the threat posed by proliferation of dual-use fuel cycle technologies?
4.) Will climate change drive a renaissance of nuclear power?
5.) What effect will an expansion of nuclear energy have on non-state nuclear trafficking?
6.) Are states with nuclear power more, less, or equally likely to get into wars?

If you are interested in these questions, this book is for you.