An Armchair Traveler’s Year of Books in Review

Gambia, South Africa, Peru, Vietnam, France, Kenya—sounds like an exciting travel itinerary, right?

I know I usually write about actual travels I have taken, but with this post I am hoping to switch things up a bit and write about a different type of cultural travel–the “virtual” traveling we do when we read books that transport us to far off places, introduce us to new cultures, and allow us to submerge into different ways of life.

Some of these books were selected by my book club, others I picked up on my own. Looking back, I realized that I read mainly fiction and memoirs, with a few dystopian novels and historical fiction thrown into the mix. Some are very recent, others were published decades ago; but in each I encountered a new place of intrigue. The ranking I give them (by asterisk stars) is based purely on subjective judgement: did the book leave a lasting impression, did I learn something, did it engage me intellectually–or was it just plain enjoyable to read?

If you like reading as much as I do, and if you see books as a gateway into other worlds and cultures, read on, my friend! Feel free to leave tips or recommendations in the comments section.

USA/Dystopia

Mississippi: Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward (2011) *****

I loved this book. If I had to pick a favorite read from this year, it would certainly be this one. I had put this on my reading list long ago, but only just this year turned toward it—for no reason other than that it was hurricane season in the U.S. The writing in this novel is exquisite. Ward weaves together a narrative of motherhood, loss and mourning, family ties, poverty, and natural disaster. At the center of this storm is her young protagonist Esch, who lives in Bois Sauvage with her three brothers and their alcoholic father. The impending threat of Hurricane Katrina serves as a backdrop to the daily struggles and triumphs of this young impoverished family: pit bull fighting, basketball tryouts, squirrel hunting, and sex in the back of trucks. Interspersed are Esch’s melancholic flashbacks and memories of happier times when their mother was still alive. Yet the aspect of this novel that struck me most was the triangular relationship between Esch, her brother Skeetah and his beloved white pit bull, China—and the fierce, protective love that is reflected through it on multiple levels. Though a story of loss, mourning and survival, it also signals new beginnings and hope in the aftermath of complete devastation. Ward is a two-time winner of the National Book Award; once for this book and just last month for Sing, Unburied, Sing, which is now at the top of my must-read list.

The American South: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (2016) *****

This novel left me rattled. There were some points where I had to put it down and wasn’t sure whether I would be able to continue. Yet I felt that in reading this, I was also bearing witness to the atrocities committed against African Americans through the institution of slavery and beyond. A Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award Winner, the novel follows its protagonist, a slave named Cora, through various geographic locations, each one revealing a danger or evil as bad as–or worse–than the previous. Though set in a dystopian version of the United States with an actual subterranean railroad that helps transport slaves secretly to freedom, the novel only distorts factual details and historical elements to a certain degree. Enough truth remains to allow the utter horrors of slavery and racism to be reflected as they really were: lived experiences of violence and brutality, shame and submission, fear and desperation. This harrowing novel is worth every minute of your time—and it will linger with you long after you finish it.

The (Dystopian) Republic of Gideon: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985) *****

Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has been aptly described as set in a dystopia, where women become mere vessels of reproduction due to extreme environmental pollution that has caused birth defects and infertility to drastically rise. The novel has experienced a resurgence in popularity this past year (due partly to the TV series released on Hulu and partly to our current political climate) and I thought it was high time that I read this canonical piece of literature. Though written in 1985 while Atwood was living in West Berlin during the Cold War, the novel resonates clearly with today’s readers. While she admits that travels throughout the Soviet bloc influenced her writing of The Handmaid’s Tale (e.g. the Secret Service of Gilead), Atwood also draws upon 17th century Puritanism and biblical motifs to create this dystopian world of Gilead, an authoritarian regime controlled by a few elite men. Scary, indeed.

Manhattan, Poland, Chile: The History of Love by Nicole Krauss (2005) **

I have grown very accustomed to reading books on my Kindle. My tech-savvy husband tried to convince me for years to give it a try and once I finally did, I found that I could have almost every book at my fingertips and discovered that with our nomadic lifestyle, sometimes it is best to have less physical things to schlepp around. Nevertheless, sometimes I still yearn to hold a physical book in my hands, to be able to turn back pages, reference table of contents, flip back to key passages (I would have never survived my degree in literature with a Kindle!). Krauss’ novel is one of those books that I found difficult to read on a Kindle. In this novel infused with Jewish magic realism, Krauss weaves together so many disparate storylines, characters, time periods and places that I found myself struggling to keep pace. Some characters were utterly delightful (especially one of its protagonists, the eccentric and aging Leo Gursky) and others were just plain odd. The History of Love is actually a book within the book and the glue that holds everything together; written by Leo Gursky, stolen and published in Spanish translation by his friend Zvi Litvinoff, and later avidly read by the father of the third protagonist, Alma Singer (named after all of the female characters in the fictional book). Confused yet? Regrettably, this was not among my favorite books of the year.

South America

Peru: Bel Canto by Ann Patchett (2001) ***

Having previously read State of Wonder (set in Brazil, loved it!) and The Commonwealth (felt too disjointed to me), I decided to tackle Bel Canto, which is set in an unnamed country in South America, but is based loosely on real-life events in Peru (in 1996, a group of militant revolutionaries took hundreds of diplomats and business executives hostage at the Japanese ambassadorial residence in Lima). In Patchett’s story, the sole female among otherwise all male hostages is a world-class opera singer, Roxanne Coss. As a novice opera fan and an expat living in an embassy community abroad, I was intrigued by the storyline. The book is certainly a page turner and the plot admirably manages to maintain momentum after the opening hostage scene, thanks to numerous love entanglements and dramatic encounters. Unexpectedly, the hostages and terrorists find themselves in a living situation that gradually no one seems interested in escaping. Yet something about Patchett’s portrayal of the hostages vis-à-vis the terrorists bothered me; she seems to fall into the trap of cultural elitism. In bestowing their high culture (opera, chess, gourmet cooking) upon the “uncivilized” terrorists, the hostages succeed in humanizing and taming their captors. Nevertheless, if you are able to look past this aspect, it can still be an enthralling read.

Africa

Kenya: Circling the Sun by Paula McClain (2015) ***

A few years ago, I read McClain’s fictionalized novel about Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson. When searching for a good read to accompany me on our first safari, I came across her more recent novel set in British East Africa (and later Kenya) during the beginning of the twentieth century. Like The Paris Wife, this is a fictional account of an historical figure, namely Beryl Markham, née Clutterbuck, a famous racehorse trainer and aviator. Indeed, Markham was the first aviator to successfully complete a flight over the Atlantic from east to west. While the novel opens with this, it centers on Beryl’s teenage and early adult years—first as an unruly child growing up on a remote farm in the African bush, later as a racehorse trainer and unhappy wife to her brutish husband. Almost two-thirds through the book, I began to feel as if I were reading a familiar story. Beryl falls in love with a charismatic, adventurous British game hunter and aviator, Denys Finch Hatton, who is involved with a Danish baroness named Karen Blixen…does this ring a bell? If you’ve read Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa or seen the movie starring Mery Streep and Robert Redford, then it should–because Isak Dinesen is Karen Blixen’s pen name! McClain’s descriptions of Africa are beautiful and vivid; her portrayal of Beryl’s character is less satisfying. Nevertheless, if you enjoy historical fiction, if you have a penchant for juicy socialite scandals or if you grew up reading about girls growing up in untamed nature à la Laura Ingalls Wilder, you will find something that speaks to you in this book.

Great Britain and West Africa: Swing Time by Zadie Smith (2016) **

This novel received a lot of hype in the media and drew me in through various reviews in literary columns and podcasts. Thinking back on it now, I have to say that it didn’t leave as strong of an impact on me as I initially expected it to. If a novel really gets under my skin, it stays with me and I have to have time to process it; it takes a while until I start my next read. But Smith’s Swing Time didn’t linger with me. This is perhaps due in part to the elusive, nameless protagonist whose identity is eclipsed by the other three women in her life: her self-righteous activist mother, her best friend Tracy and later her pop star boss, Aimee. The novel begins in working-class North London during the protagonist’s childhood and follows her into young adulthood, when she begins working for Aimee (who, it should be mentioned, suffers from an extreme ‘white savior’ complex) and travels as her personal assistant to Gambia. Swing Time is a story about friendship, music, mother-daughter relationships, race relations, socioeconomic clashes and gender. Yet while the book succeeds as a beautiful piece of literary writing, it didn’t resonate with me as others did.

South Africa: Born a Crime by Trevor Noah (2016) ***

Having been a huge Jon Stewart’s Daily Show fan, I was slow to warm to Trevor Noah since I was reluctant to see anyone replace my favorite comedian. When my book club in Brasília decided to read this memoir, I therefore wasn’t too eager to begin it. However, I was pleasantly surprised by Noah’s candid and witty voice in describing what it was like growing up as a mixed-race child during apartheid in South Africa. It is a touching, and sometimes tragic, coming-of-age story–not a rise-to-fame narrative as I was expecting. Not only does Noah offer insight into South African culture and history, he also recounts embarrassing and poignant moments throughout his early teenage years with a good dose of humility. Definitely worth a read!

 

 

Asia

Vietnam: The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen (2015) ****

When I was at home this past fall, PBS was airing Ken Burns’ Vietnam documentary. Perhaps this is what prompted me to pick up Nguyen’s The Sympathizer. I will admit it took me a while to get into this book. Some of my difficulty with this book was my lack of historical knowledge; once I gained my footing, my reading took off. This is a dense, unapologetically written book that does not take sides but rather, like its protagonist (a Communist spy who works undercover as an aid to a South Vietnamese general), remains suspended in a complicated web of cultural, political and historical entanglements. The book is explicit in its critique of American exceptionalism and cultural imperialism (particularly Hollywood’s depiction of the Vietnam War); yet it also does not shy away from pointing to the brutalities committed by the North Vietnamese forces following the Liberation of Saigon (or Fall, depending on what stance you take), which is where the novel begins. To describe this book as a Vietnam War novel then would be a misnomer; it deals more with the aftermath of the war and the Vietnamese diaspora in the U.S. Nevertheless, the war remains a specter that haunts the narrative, along with other ghosts that rest heavily on the protagonist’s conscience. In the last quarter of the novel, the storyline takes a very dark and brutal turn for which I was utterly unprepared. If you have this on your reading list, then brace yourself for the horrific torture scenes at the end. One final tip: if your book comes with it, read the interview with Nguyen when you finish.

Tokyo and British Columbia: A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki ***

Teenage bullying, kamikaze pilots of World War II, Silicon Valley and the dot-com bust, a Buddhist nun, the Japanese tsunami of 2011… all of these elements swirl around Ozeki’s novel and connect the lives of two people on opposite sides of the Pacific Ocean. It begins when the diary of a troubled 16-year-old Japanese girl washes up on the coast of British Columbia (tucked away in a Hello Kitty lunchbox) and finds its way into the hands of an American author with severe writer’s block who eagerly takes up reading the diary. From here we journey with the two protagonists as they each try to come to terms with personal struggles in their lives. Ozeki deftly portrays the emotional frailty of a vulnerable teenager; yet Nao’s grandmother, a feminist, anarchist, 105-year-old Buddhist nun was the most memorable character of this novel for me. Had this book not been selected by my book club, I am not sure I would have read it; but I am glad that I did.

 

 

Europe

Switzerland: When in French: Love in a Second Language by Lauren Collins **

I really wanted to like this memoir by journalist Lauren Collins. It has a very interesting premise: a young American woman falls in love with a Frenchman and moves to Geneva where she attempts to learn French. The book follows a central question that I find intriguing: Do we become different people when we speak a different language? (My answer would be, yes, to an extent). Yet at times the memoir reads more like a primer in linguistic theory with tangential historical facts that become rather tedious at times. There were also sections that felt oddly incomplete (e.g. her meeting at the académie française or her husband’s hotel reception debacle). Where Collins really shines, in my opinion, is in her vignettes of cross-cultural human interactions (for example, when she describes a vacation in Europe with her North Carolinian family). Perhaps readers with a stronger affinity to French and the French-speaking world will find the memoir more engrossing than I did.

 

 

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