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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: Novel Without a Name by Duong Thu Huong

Novel Without a NameNovel Without a Name by Dương Thu Hương
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This novel’s protagonist, Quan, is a North Vietnamese soldier who, after ten years of war-fighting and surviving, has worked his way up to a junior officer position with a small unit under his command. Much of the story describes a road trip in the midst of war. One of Quan’s childhood friends who is now his superior officer, Luong, assigns Quan the task of going to visit a distant medical unit to check on a third common village friend, Bien, who is said to have had a nervous breakdown. Luong, further tells Quan to take some well-earned time off for a home visit, since the junior officer hasn’t been to see his home in a decade. In the latter part of the book, Quan returns to his unit after an uneasy home visit to see the father with whom he has strained relations (his mother ran away with another man), the neighbors he seems closer to than he is his own father, and his childhood sweetheart who has fallen on hard times — having had to accept that the two would never be married. On the way, back to his unit, Quan checks on Bien who he busted out of horrific conditions at a field hospital and got reassigned to a special unit with the non-Infantry, but macabre, task of building coffins. The book ends with another uneasy transition, the war’s end – which sees Quan’s comrades in celebration, but also not sure what to expect after an entire adult life spent at war.

Interspersed with the real-time events that occur as Quan travels through a jungle war-zone, one is shown flashbacks to some of the intense traumas of his years at war. These include friendly-fire incidents and the “only the good die young” effect in which it seems the most kind and virtuous are often the most perishable in times of war. There’s also a very human story that’s told about how war effects lives and transforms relationships – in some cases forging unbreakable bonds and in other cases building impenetrable barriers between loved ones.

I’ve read a few books on the Vietnam War, both fiction and non-fiction, but this may be the first I’ve read from a North Vietnamese perspective. What is interesting about that is that the experiences and themes are often not that different from one sees in works like Karl Marlantes’s “Matterhorn” or Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried.” Soldiers on both sides have similar day-to-day experiences from boredom to horrors, and it has largely the same effect upon the soldier’s psyches. One of the overarching themes this book has in common with its American-centric counterparts is growing disillusionment. Like the American soldiers who often couldn’t comprehend what they were fighting for (other than the survival of their friends and themselves), Quan’s core beliefs become challenged over the course of the novel. It’s often been said that there are no atheists in foxholes, but it seems equally true that there are no ideologues in foxholes. The pragmatic concerns demanded of the war-fighter make it hard to be an impassioned Marxist or an impassioned follower of any ideology. This is seen in one scene in which an older officer is put off by Quan’s lack of enthusiasm for the Marxist message, and then later when the tables are turned and Quan converses with a young subordinate soldier who is even more disillusioned.

Of course, there are differences. Quan is much more at home in the environment of the war – though not exempt from the miseries of the jungle. It’s not like he’s been dropped on a different planet as it was for American soldiers who had no experience of tropical living. On the other hand, an American soldier could at least rest assured that his loved one’s were home in safety, but for Quan and his peers there is no reason to think family is any more safe than they. Of course, the concept of traipsing through the war zone on a home visit after years successively at war represents one important difference that is also fundamental to the story.

I found this book to be gripping and illuminating. It’s highly readable and relatable, even though there are flashbacks that take one out of a linear timeline; they are well done and not confusing. I would highly recommend this book for anyone who reads war stories, who enjoys translated fiction from other cultures, or who just wants a thought-provoking work of literary fiction.

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BOOK REVIEW: Mad Country by Samrat Upadhyay

Mad CountryMad Country by Samrat Upadhyay
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

I’ve recently started reading at least one work of literature from each country I visit, and I picked this book up in Nepal as a first take on that country through the lens of literature. I couldn’t be happier with my selection. This book provided exactly what I was looking for in such a book, and more. What I want from such a book is insight into culture, lifestyle, and politico-historical context that can be difficult to witness through travel. Traveling a new country is like dating a new person; one doesn’t see the rough edges for some time. (Usually the relationship – in either case — is over before one sees into the murky depths.)

Over the course of eight stories, Upadhyay not only gives one insight into the nature of life for a variety of Nepalis (e.g. rich, poor, and middle class as well as young / progressive v.) older / conservative), he also shows the life of a hippie ex-pat gone native as well as presenting the worldview of a Nepali abroad (i.e. in America for college.) Where this book exceeded my expectations was in the skilfulness of tension-building employed in the stories. Often a book that achieves the aforementioned objectives does so in a way that is flat on story because it takes the character-centric orientation common in literary fiction. These stories are gripping as well as insightful, and don’t abandon story for character. It dances a beautiful line in that regard.

The first of eight stories tells of the trials and tribulations of an editor of a hard-hitting journalistic magazine, and the dual challenges she faces in taking on a corrupt regime while at the same time she has a friend who is going through a messy breakup. However the editor juggles these competing demands, we know she won’t escape some guilt of failing someone important to her.

The second story is about a rich boy whose life is tormented by the fact that his mother abandoned him and his father and moved on to form a new family. The boy takes to impersonating a beggar, secretly hoping his mother will see him and will be shocked into change. The story is also about the young man’s wake up call to the fact that he’ll never have the killer instincts bred by necessity into those less fortunate that are arrayed against him.

The third story is about “the Sharmas,” a dysfunctional Nepali nuclear family in which the mother is pure shrew, the father is trying fumblingly to have an affair, the son is a dim-wit, and the daughter is dating a young man who everybody seems to think is out of her league.

The fourth story is about a girl in the early 1980’s Kathmandu who goes from the drug-addled life of a Freak Street hippie to going full native. Here we see what draws the foreigner to Nepal and to Nepalese people, as well as how attempts to escape into another culture can be as troubled as attempts to escape into drug-induced euphoria.

The fifth story is by far the longest and might be classed as a novella. It’s about a young man who becomes obsessed with an African girl that he rescues in Kathmandu. The piece has a very dream-like quality to it, and through much of the story one is left unclear as to what is real and what is the product of the lead’s mind. In fact, the title “Dreaming of Ghana” suggests this imagined state of affairs.

The sixth story is the shortest, and – as its title suggests – it’s about an “Affair before the Earthquake.” The story evokes the emotion of world events that cleanly bisect our lives.

The eponymously titled penultimate chapter follows a wealthy and powerful woman who is “disappeared” by a corrupt authoritarian regime when she tries to look into the similar disappearance of her son. It’s a fascinating tale about a prominent real estate developer who is disabused of the notion that she is too powerful to be man-handled by the State. We see her transformation as a prisoner as the wind is taken out of her sails until one wonders whether she would ever be able to cope in her old life after being cowed by prison life.

The last story, like the fourth, turns things upside-down a bit. In it we find a Nepali student abroad who finds himself out in the cold because of his strong views on race. He discovers he’s at odds with the other foreign students because he thinks they should be more outraged about the bias displayed against them. He identifies with the plight of blacks, but they don’t see him as one of them.

This is an intense little collection of stories and I’d highly recommend it. The stories are well-crafted and keep the reader intrigued.

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BOOK REVIEW: Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the WorldHard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This novel intersperses two story lines, the connection between which only becomes clear near the book’s end. The first story arc is set in a realistic world in which a few futuristic and bizarre science fiction elements intrude on an otherwise ordinary Tokyo scenescape. Let’s face it, Tokyo is one of those cities that it’s easy to believe hides some unexpected truths inside its gargantuan sprawl.

In the first story (i.e. the odd-numbered chapters), a Calcutec (i.e. the narrator) is hired by a mysterious elderly scientist who’s running an independent laboratory. Calcutecs are individuals who’ve been trained to use their subconscious for data encryption and storage. As the offense / defense of data encryption has become a contact sport in this world, the narrator isn’t initially surprised when he gains some unwanted attention from nefarious types, but gradually he comes to discover that nothing is as it seems.

The second story arc plays out in a surreal dream world. In this world, the lead (also a “narrator”) is a dream reader who spends his nights taking in old dreams from the skulls of the beasts who reside in the countryside nearby and which die off in massive numbers each winter. All and all, this narrators life is relatively calm and tranquil, though he does suffer some anxiety over the fact that he’s been separated from his shadow, and that said shadow seems to be dying off.

For a story that plays out in the surreal imagery of the subconscious mind and which hinges on the esoteric world of the brain, it’s incredibly readable and easily followed. This is trippy reading, but it’s not difficult to follow. If you enjoy movies like “Inception,” “Source Code,” “Memento,” or “The Machinist,” this book will be right up your alley.

I’d highly recommend this book for those who enjoy mind-bending fiction.

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Around the World in 5 Works of Poetry

5.) On Love and Barley by Matsuo Basho [Japanese]: One doesn’t get better haiku [and other traditional Japanese poetry forms] than Basho.



4.) The Sun and Her Flowers by Rupi Kaur [Indian-Canadian]: This isn’t the expected fair for an “around the world” post as it’s not blatantly infused with setting / geography, but culture does factor in prominently.


3.) Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman [American]: Not only does Whitman explore the many dimensions of America, he also references other cultures and locales. [There was a fascination with the East brewing in Whitman’s day.]


2.) Octavio Paz / Selected Poems by Octavio Paz [Mexican]: Paz was a diplomat as well as a Nobel Laureate, and his poems include many references to India (where he was posted) as well as Mexico.


1.) The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran [Lebanese-American]: Featuring an intriguing melange of advice in poetic form.


NOTE: It’s not as global a list as I’d like. I’d love to hear what works others might include in the list. I don’t think poetry gets translated as much as fiction and so it’s a bit of a challenge. It’s much easier to find examples of novels & short story collections from far-flung corners of the world.

BOOK REVIEW: The Journey to the East by Hermann Hesse

The Journey to the EastThe Journey to the East by Hermann Hesse
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This lesser-known Hesse work adopts a theme common throughout the author’s books in that it’s philosophical man-versus-himself fiction. The book’s protagonist, H.H., is a member of a secretive league [called “The League”] with whom he is undertaking a journey of self-discovery. H.H. fails to complete the expedition, and that fact haunts him into old age. Ultimately, H.H. finds Leo, a servant who’d been on the journey with him, with whom H.H. had a great affinity, and whose disappearance (along with some loot) led to H.H.’s abandonment of the trip. In the process, the lead discovers that nothing was what it seemed.The book examines how vulnerable people are to disillusionment and how quickly they can lose their passion, and it urges the reader to consider from what source one draws one’s strength.

This novella is a little under a hundred pages, and is told in five chapters. The first couple of chapters describe the ill-fated journey. The third chapter is a pivot in which H.H. is considering his inadequate attempt to chronicle events, and is advised to get closure by tracking down Leo. In the last two chapters, H.H. does find Leo, receives the man’s wisdom, and ultimately finds out what really happened.

I enjoyed this book. It’s a quick and simple read, but is extremely thought-provoking. I’d recommend this book for anyone who likes to think about life’s big questions.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Finger by William S Burroughs

The FingerThe Finger by William S Burroughs
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This is book #25 in Penguin’s “Modern” series. These short books (less than 100 pages) feature short works (poems, short stories, essays, speeches, and even a novella or two) from 20th century luminaries. In this case, the book consists of six short stories by the Beat Generation writer William S. Burroughs, who’s most famous for his novel “Naked Lunch” and for his affinity for heroin. I mention the latter not to besmirch Burroughs’ character, but because drug use (and the vices that sometimes travel hand-in-hand) is a fixture in Burroughs’ writing, and this collection is no exception.

Many, if not all, of these stories are in the same fictional universe, as suggested by repeated characters and locations — most notably the junky William Lee of “Naked Lunch” fame. [These stories were previously published in a collection entitled, “Interzone,” and the titular piece had an even earlier first publication in the book, “Early Routines.”] However, the stories are all stand-alone pieces and a couple of them show no evidence of being related. The one’s that do share common features don’t tell an overarching tale.

The six stories are:

1.) “The Finger”: An addict, Lee, cuts off his own finger (just the top joint) and is surprised by the reaction it incurs.

2.) “Driving Lesson”: An individual with no experience driving is asked to take the wheel, and given some bad advice to boot.

3.) “The Junky’s Christmas”: The spirit of Christmas overcomes an addict’s yearnings.

4.) “Lee and the Boys”: Lee and his various [non-sexual] interactions with young male prostitutes.

5.) “In the Café Central”: This isn’t so much a story as sketches of the various meetups simultaneously transpiring at a café. There is a table with: a.) a guide and a tourist, b.) a German expat and the annoying gossip who he uniquely tolerates, c.) a beautiful woman with bad teeth who is a wee bit sensitive about them.

6.) “Dream of the Penal Colony”: This hazy, little story is part a dream of being in a penal colony and part slurry of reality and the hallucinations of drug-addled drifter.

I enjoyed this little collection and would recommend it for someone who wants to sample Burroughs before diving into one of his novels. While the first story may have gotten the title role by virtue of its bizarre subject matter, I’d argue that “The Junky’s Christmas” is narratively the strongest. It’s not too hard to follow these pieces despite the fact that the stories virtually all feature unreliable narration by virtue of being told through the eyes of someone in the grips of substance abuse. Burroughs presents that mix of reality and drug-distorted world-view vividly and intelligibly. That said, if you’re expecting the world through sober eyes, you’re in the wrong place.

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5 Beautiful Death Poems

 

5.) In Flanders Fields by John McCrae

excerpt [2nd stanza]:

We are the dead; short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders fields.

 

4.) Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night by Dylan Thomas

excerpt [1st stanza]:

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

 

3.) Because I could not stop for Death (479) by Emily Dickinson

excerpt [1st stanza]:

Because I could not stop for Death –

He kindly stopped for me –

The Carriage held but just Ourselves –

And Immortality.

 

2.) To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time by Robert Herrick

excerpt [2nd stanza]:

The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,

The higher he’s a getting,

The sooner will his race be run,

The nearer he’s to setting.

 

1.) Do Not Stand At My Grave and Weep by Mary Elizabeth Frye [authorship disputed]

excerpt [opening lines]:

Do not stand at my grave and weep.

I am not there. I do not sleep.

I am a thousand winds that blow.

I am the diamond glints on snow…

BOOK REVIEW: Death the Barber William Carlos Williams

Death the BarberDeath the Barber by William Carlos Williams
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This is a collection of 39 poems by the twentieth century poet William Carlos Williams. It’s a thin volume, and is part of Penguin’s Modern Classics — a series of short works (small short story collections, novellas, and poetry collections; all less than 100 pages) that feature writers from the past century or so. Like many, my experience with Williams didn’t extend much beyond his red wheelbarrow (not included herein) and so it was nice to get a taste of a broader range of his poems.

The poetry is free verse with experimental feel. The gathered poems are as short as a few lines and as long as two-ish pages, but most fall in the one to one-and-a-half page range. Williams was an imagist, and these poems reflect that focus on creating vivid imagery while using economy of words. While imagery is given priority, Williams doesn’t completely ignore sound, using alliteration and repetition to create interesting aural effects here and there. Nature is a common theme, but not an exclusive one in these works.

Among the more noteworthy poems are the titular poem (“Death the Barber”), “Dedication for a Plot of Ground” [an elegy to his grandmother, Emily Dickinson Wellcome (not the poet sharing the same first two names),] “Young Sycamore,” “Death,” “The Botticellian Trees,” and “The Bitter World of Spring.”

I enjoyed this little collection and that it wasn’t just greatest hits — which in Williams’ case would revolve around his famous “Red Wheelbarrow.”

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BOOK REVIEW: The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran

The ProphetThe Prophet by Khalil Gibran
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This is a combination of a narrative poem and a collection of morality poems. The story of the narrative poem is that a wise man (i.e. the Prophet), Almustafa, is about to sail away from his recent — but temporary — home on Orphalese, and he’s asked to speak on a range of topics so the people of Orphalese can gather his wisdom before he goes.

In 26 chapters, the prophet expounds on each topic upon which he is questioned. Topics include relationships, possessions, laws, religion, teaching, and death. The wisdom presented is practical, profound, and reflects a mystic sentiment (i.e. the idea that the divine is within us rather than something separate.) This is an extremely quotable volume. Among his responses, the Prophet says that one should not be too controlling in relationships, that one should not live life under the dictates of fear, that it’s not for one to determine what is moral for another, and that one should not engage in morality or worship for show.

I’ll keep my review short as the book is tiny and certainly worth your time. I’d recommend this book for all readers. I think it has some insight to offer just about anyone.

[Note: Some spell the author’s first name “Kahlil” and others “Khalil.” I picked one at random.]

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