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

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“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.)

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BOOK REVIEW: Maphead by Ken Jennings

Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography WonksMaphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks by Ken Jennings
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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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.

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