The scholar sits, contemplating the world's perfect order, but finds that "perfect" is a stretch. "It's close to the border between Disorder and Chaos. mere miles from the junction of Great Malady and Mayhem deep within Dysfunction."
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Out: November 16, 2021
David Damrosch’s comp lit world tour has a simple premise. You’re a traveler and the pandemic strikes, how do you travel by book while trapped at home? For those who think travel and reading are unrelated endeavors, I disagree. As a traveler and avid reader, I’ve always found the two intertwined in building a greater understanding of the world. Reading is an essential part of traveling, and I read literature from every place I visit. Why? Because people the world over are guarded, yearning to make good impressions. Because of this, one gets a partial and distorted view of other cultures. Poets and novelists round out the picture by airing the dirty laundry of their people. It’s not that revealing the dark and ugly edges of a culture is their foremost objective, but those are good sources of tension in a novel and of emotional resonance in a poem. [Seeking out what’s not so pretty about a culture might seem like a tawdry undertaking, but falling in love with a place is like falling in love with a person, if you do so without first seeing their bad habits, it’s not really love. It’s just childlike infatuation.]
The book’s organization is straightforward. There are sixteen locales, and five books are discussed for each. I enjoyed Damrosch’s “syllabus.” The eighty books included a pleasant mix of works I’ve read, those I’ve been meaning to read, and [most importantly] those I’d missed altogether. Any source that reveals new reading material to me will definitely find favor.
The book starts in London (apropos of its titular connection to the Jules Verne novel) and moves through Europe, the Middle East, Africa, over through Asia, back around to Latin America, and finally to North America to conclude (as trips generally do) back at home.
The book is weighted heavily toward the literature side of the travel-literature nexus. That’s not a criticism, it’s just worth noting for travelers who aren’t avid readers of literary fiction and poetry, because they may find this book gets a bit deep in the literary weeds. (The sections don’t focus single-mindedly on the listed book, but meander through the author’s oeuvre and influences.) While many of the selections are indisputably excellent choices for traveling by book, others lack a connection that is readily apparent (e.g. the final book, Lord of the Rings.) Again, I didn’t find that to be a negative as there was always something to be learned from the discussions, and – who knows – it may have even expanded my thinking.
If you’re a traveler / reader, you should definitely consider giving this book a read.
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6.) Thor & Loki in the Land of Giants (Norse): There’s no shame in putting a mere dent in the impossible.
5.) Rama & Sita (Hindu / from the Ramayana): Careful with your assumptions. You may end up looking like a jerk even if you’ve proven yourself generally virtuous.
4.) Anansi the Trickster (Ghanan / Akan): Don’t do favors for tricksters.
3.) Arachne the Weaver (Greek): Don’t be arrogant, even if you’re the best.
2.) Izanagi & Izanami (Japanese [creation myth]): Hell hath no fury…
1.) White Buffalo Calf Woman (Native American / Lakotan): Don’t let your lust get away from you and be careful in your assumptions.
Reading translated novels is a good way to gain insight into the culture and history of a country in a way that is both entertaining and that exposes the deep nuances of national character. I’ve selected works that both highlight aspects of culture and / or history and that are pleasant reading–some are humorous and others are adventures, but none are drudgery. (Includes two Nobel Prize winners and one guy who gets nominated every year only to have the prize handed to folk-rock musicians or the like.)
[The hyperlinks go to my review of said book in GoodReads.]
1.) The Good Soldier Švejk by Jaroslav Hašek (Czech): The lead character in this farcical comedy is a bumbling, but likable, idiot who is drawn into military service. The book highlights the fact that in times of war the greatest acts of idiocy are not perpetrated by greatest idiots.
2.) After Dark by Haruki Murakami (Japan): One can’t go wrong with Murakami. I almost picked Norwegian Wood, which is more a work of realist literary fiction, but this novel about what happens when the trains stop running in Tokyo may shed a little more light on Japan. (anti-pun not intended.)
3.) Eclipse of the Crescent Moon by Géza Gárdonyi (Hungary): The story of how a small Hungarian castle village held out against a siege by the Ottoman juggernaut.
4.) Death in the Andes by Mario Vargas Llosa (Peru): When three men disappear from a small mining village in the Andes, the Army sends a Corporal and his deputy to investigate.
5.) Life and Death are Wearing Me Out by Mo Yan (China): A wealthy land owner is executed during the Communist revolution and must live out several lives as various animals in the service of the family of his [former] beloved hired-hand. The books shows the generational change between when China first became Communist through the reform period that led to a more market-friendly approach.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
“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.)
In a sad commentary TV’s popularity, you may only know Ken Jennings from his record winning streak on Jeopardy, and the books he’s written since then may have escaped your attention. But Jennings isn’t just a fast-handed font of trivia, he writes nonfiction that is approachable, intriguing, and displays a good sense of humor.
Maphead is about maps and the people who love them, and–in some cases–who build their lives around various forms of graphic depiction of our world. In 12 chapters, Jennings not only reflects upon the many forms of map and geography fetish, he also presents insight on the opposite–the often dismaying and sometimes hilarious geographic illiteracy of college students and beauty queens. Besides learning about the million dollar outlays of rare map collectors and the intense rivalry of geocache hunters, Geography Bee contestants, and Traveler’s Century Club members (only those who’ve been to 100+ countries need apply), you’ll hear about a college professor who was fired for letting fly the fact that a majority of his incoming students hadn’t the vaguest idea of the whereabouts of metropoles like London or Chicago.
This book may seem like it’s only for those geeky to an obsessive level, but it’s one intriguing work of geo-geekery. It’s certainly for the intellectually inclined, but Jennings doesn’t bludgeon the reader with his intellect. True, you’ll be introduced to terms like hypsometric maps and cartacacoethes, but never in a manner that suggests a normal person would know such arcane terms. As might be expected from a trivia master, Jennings heavily seasons his book with fascinating tidbits and factoids—particularly in the chapter of the National Geographic “geography bee.” You’ll learn how the borders work between countries that drive on opposite sides of the road (I’ve experienced this myself from Cambodia to Thailand, and that may be the only place in the world where it occurs.) You’ll learn what’s in a name, and why one like “Whorehouse Meadows” was doomed from the start. You’ll learn about why maps that are wrong are often the most prized.
But it’s not all trivia. Jennings takes on serious questions as well. For example, he reflects on the degree to which kids being prohibited from venturing out into the world because of an overblown concern about pedophilic maniacs has contributed to a geographically uninterested and incapable student body. The reader is exposed to a history in which mapmakers were adventurers—the stuff of legends. In doing so, Jennings attempts to reignite a passion for geography that is lacking in a post-frontier world. We’ve become jaded by our planetary proliferation. But the book’s excitement isn’t all in the past. One learns about vintage map thieves and the sometimes wild and wooly world of modern travel (e.g. where one should get passport stamps on a separate sheet of paper to avoid border rectal exams.)
Maybe it’s the maphead in me, but I’d recommend this book for anyone who reads nonfiction. And if you’re not sure whether you’re a maphead or not, there’s a handy quiz in the back of the book.
In the interest of enhancing global understanding and camaraderie, I’ve built a translator of common first world (FW) problems–putting them in terms of their Rest of the World (RoW) equivalents.
FW: This food needs salt.
RoW: This food needs food.
FW: My health insurance premiums went up $20 per month.
RoW: My right foot, which recently turned from purple to black, just fell off.
FW: My car is in the shop again.
RoW: My right foot, which recently turned from purple to black, just fell off.
FW: It’s raining again today.
RoW: My house was washed off its foundations and is currently floating down the Brahmaputra River.
FW: Looks like those devils from the other party got a majority in the legislature.
RoW: This coup was particularly bloody.
FW: Squirrels are getting into my bird feeder.
RoW: A tiger ate my family.
FW: A traffic jam made me late for Pilates class.
RoW: While limping through the Kyber Pass to get antibiotics for my right stump, I was socked in by an unanticipated blizzard.
FW: My GPS says this road cuts under the interstate, but now I’ve got to go around.
RoW: What’s GPS?
I was sitting at an outdoor cafe as I thought about how to write this post. I’d just finished reading chapter 5 of the Rob Dunn book entitled The Wild Life of Our Bodies, and was reflecting upon how interesting it was to be reading two books whose central premise–in broad brush strokes–was the same. As I was ruminating, a family of four–a couple and their two daughters, an infant and a preschooler/kindergartener–came and sat down at an adjacent table.
For a while the preternaturally-cute infant crawled around on the table top, but as the mother became concerned that the wriggly little child might fall or spill scalding coffee, she eventually set the child down. The child proceeded to crawl around on the ground–ground on which one could easily imagine pigeons trolling for crumbs. [Full-disclosure: I didn’t actually see any pigeons, or even any noticeable filth on the ground for that matter, and–while this is India–it was a major coffee chain attached to the side of a popular up-scale shopping mall, and so that particular ground was probably at least hosed down daily.] The child crawled on all-fours, except that she had the plastic number placard which told the waitress where to bring the order in one of her hands, and she would alternate between dragging it across the ground and–when she got tired of crawling–she would roll onto her rump and pop a corner of the placard into her mouth.
If reading the preceding scene made you a bit queasy, you should be reading one [or both] of books mentioned above. Doing so gave me a totally different perspective on this event. There was a point when I–like many–would have assumed the little girl would get some sort of ailment and that her parents would pay in lost sleep for letting the kid crawl on the ground in an urban public space, but I’m now more inclined to think that probably nothing will happen, and she could–theoretically–end up better off for the wear. I’m not advocating wallowing in filth, but I have come to see biological stressors in a new light. I wouldn’t go so far as to advocate letting a child crawl around sticking things in his or her mouth that have been on the ground at a cafe, but it would no longer surprise me to hear that this child lived a healthier life than children of germophobic (properly “mysophobic”) first-world moms who are about one cookie-off-the-kitchen-floor from forcing their children to live in a bubble.
The reader may be wondering two things: 1.) how these books could mitigate one’s queasiness, and 2.) what the books even have in common. If you’re familiar with Nassim Nicholas Taleb, it’s likely you associate him with criticisms of the misuse of statistical methods, and the failure to understand under what conditions the usefulness of these methods break down. While Taleb does consider a wide range of examples in his popular books Black Swan, Fooled by Randomness, and–most recently and most relevantly–Antifragile, the world of business is where Taleb’s background lies and where much of his discussion is centered. The Dunn book, one the other hand, fits squarely in the domain of biology and medicine.
Both of these books take as their core idea that there are systems that must face constant and occasionally serious challenges to grow stronger, and that the removal of these challenges can have adverse and sometimes dire consequences. Taleb looks at such systems in a broad and general sense, and coins a term, “antifragile”, to describe such systems. A system is antifragile if it gets stronger (i.e. in some way better) when subjected to stresses. This shouldn’t be confused with robustness, which is being indifferent to stressors. Robust systems can take or leave stressors, but antifragile systems need them or they become weakened. Dunn’s book deals with a specific example of an antifragile system, our guts. The biologist suggests that our war on parasites and germs has created a whole raft of problems never before seen. It’s probably not a new idea to most readers, as there are ongoing arguments about the risks of our antibacterial frenzy.
While first-world dwellers tend to take a superior view of those poor third-worlders and their myriad ailments–a number of which have been stamped out in the developed world–Westerners may not even be aware that there are a number of ailments that exist almost exclusively in the first world. Increasing evidence is developing that certain forms of diabetes and allergies are linked to “clean living.” Interestingly, while one might readily imagine how a digestive tract ailment like Crohn’s Disease is tied to insufficiently populated digestive ecosystem, there’s reason to believe that diverse issues such as autism and anxiety disorders may also be linked to loss of internal predators and the imbalances their loss causes.
It’s not entirely a coincidence that I’m reading these books concurrently. I’ve been interested in the issue in a broad sense as of late. How does the craving of comfort weaken a population? What are the risks of indiscriminately weeding the stressors out of one’s life? (As seems to be a major objective of modernity.) Of course, stressors are not eliminated, but instead stressors that are relatively feeble may become the 800 lb. gorilla of stressors.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Escape from North Korea is the most intriguing non-fiction book I’ve read in recent months. Kirkpatrick offers a glimpse into the operations of a modern-day underground railroad, one whose stories—sadly—are often no less chilling than those associated with its US Civil War namesake from 150 years ago.
The 17 chapters of this book are arranged into six parts. The organizational logic of the book takes the reader from the germ of an idea to flee all the way to settling into life in a free country, with all the trials and tribulations that are experienced in between. It begins as a story of one person who decides to escape, and who must virtually always get across the border into China on his or her own. Once across the border, there is help to be had if the refugee can find it before he or she gets caught by the Chinese and repatriated or is exploited by nefarious individuals. Danger is ever-present, occasionally even once the individual gets to South Korea.
Chapters 3 through 7 were particularly interesting because they looked at various classes of escapee, some of which one might not realize existed. It starts with the classic defectors, similar to those one might associate with the USSR—political, military, sporting, and artistic figures. This was the main class of refugee until people began starving in the 1990’s due to nation-wide famine.
Next is a chapter on brides for sale. Many North Korean women end up forced into slave marriages. China has a dearth of eligible women due a bias against female children, particularly combined with its one-child policy. Some women are lured across the border under false pretenses, but others, finding themselves fugitives in China, end up being exploited due to their vulnerability. Each bride fetches about $1,200 to $1,500 ($500 to $800 from the wholesaler to the retailer.) There’s also a chapter devoted to the children of such marriages, and particularly the cases in which the mother is repatriated and the child ends up orphaned because children born in China will not be taken by the North Koreans and frequently the fathers want nothing to do with the children. Pregnant women repatriated to North Korea are often forced to abort pregnancies involving Chinese fathers.
One of the most intriguing chapters was on the North Korean lumberjacks residing in Siberia. This profit-sharing deal goes back to the Soviet days. When the Soviet Union imploded, however, the arrangement was kept with some worker rights installed on paper to appease Russia’s newly developed human rights watchdogs. One might wonder how the Kims—fearful of dissidents as they are—would let a group live outside the country on a remote site that’s hard to guard. The answer is that all the lumberjacks had to have both wives and children at home to serve as hostages. Still, some decide to make the break.
There is also a chapter about the Prisoners of War from the Korean War who were trapped on the wrong side of the border.
I’m fairly well-read on the subject of North Korea, but, like most Americans, the bulk of this has to do with Pyongyang’s nuclear program. I, therefore, found some of the stories of the regime’s depravity to be beyond the pale. A sampling of such stories includes:
-guards severely beating a prisoner and then having other prisoners bury the victim alive
-the warden in a state-run orphanage having orphans fight each other for bigger food servings
-a family that killed themselves rather than be repatriated to North Korea
-individuals, such as Ri Hyok-ok, who were executed for distributing bibles
-North Korea’s provision of family information on trans-border family members as a profit-making scheme
-Kim Jong Il pulling a Pol Pot and shutting down the universities and colleges and sending students to work on farms and in factories for months in 2011 because he was afraid that the Arab Spring might be infectious
-Kidnapping foreigners on foreign soil, which North Korea has even admitted to openly.
Sadly, the woeful tales aren’t limited to the North Koreans. Kirkpatrick devotes a considerable amount of space to chastising the Chinese for repatriating North Koreans. Under international law, which China ratified, refugees shouldn’t be sent back to their country of origin if it’s likely they will be punished. China claims that individuals are economic migrants and not political refugees, and it compares them to Mexicans crossing onto American soil—without addressing the fact that Mexicans are not sentenced to hard labor or killed when they are returned to Mexico. The Chinese might also point to Hwang Jang-yop, the author of the North Korean Juche (self-reliance) policy, as an example of a “true” political refugee that they didn’t repatriate, but allowed to migrate to South Korea (where the North Koreans tried to assassinate him in Seoul several times.)
There’s even some disappointing behavior on the side of the US. In 2006, an American consulate employee in China not only turned away several North Korea refugees, but–by speaking openly over an unsecured line–got a conductor on the Underground Railroad arrested.
The end of the book contains an interesting description of how the Kims are beginning to lose the war on keeping the information age out of North Korea. From balloon drops to radio broadcasts, North Koreans are beginning to get true information about both the outside world and their own leadership. Lest one think that no one could possibly believe the propaganda out of Pyongyang, even in the absence of information inflows, there’s a story about an immigrant to America who had a hard time coaxing his family out because they believed that America was out to kill North Koreans. This father’s story of the good life in sunny Florida didn’t entirely convince them, and ultimately they had to be coaxed to their new home in stages. It’s telling that the cellphone was only introduced in North Korea in 2008. While cellphones aren’t that useful for the railroad because they can’t call outside the country, they do allow for some spread of information inside.
One might think that once a North Korean gets to freedom, everything is hunky-dory, but Kirkpatrick discusses the problems that most North Koreans have adjusting to life in South Korea. As workers, North Koreans tend to lack initiative. They just want to be told what to do, and will do no more. It’s not that they’re inherently lazy; they come from a world in which initiative is not rewarded but is often punished.
While it may be hard to believe, most of the emigrants have trouble coping with the massive amount of choice available in their new homelands. Having an entire aisle of the market devoted to laundry detergent overwhelms them. Apparently, a few—very few—have even snuck themselves back into North Korea where all they have to do is do what they’re told, eat what they can, and maybe starve to death.
I think this is an important book that should be read by anyone interested in world affairs. North Korea is truly unique in the world. One telling line from the book was, “Even during the Communist era, Russia was more liberal and prosperous than North Korea.” The continuance of the Kim Dynasty is an unstable proposition, and it’s impossible to know when it will fall and what damage will be done internationally when it does.