Apologies for lack of posts lately - have been doing some real life travelling, volunteering in Fiji! Back in Australia now (physically) but just arrived in Trinidad and Tobago for a crime fest of short stories on my reading trip with 'Trinidad Noir'... have now read exactly 250 books on my journey with 71 to go!
Well, have just left Antarctica with the fantastic 'Everland' by Rachel Hunt - definately recommended; it is a tale of 2 expeditions on the Antarctic island of Everland; one in 1913 and the other 100 years later in 2013. Both expeditions feature parallel events and personalities; as well as a shared sense of undefined dread as the polar winter closes in... with a conclusion to both narratives that demonstrates that human nature - in all of its facets - is universal, no matte...r what age we live in.
On from there I am currently in the Falkland Islands with 'Little Black Lies' before heading off to my final 2 continents: South & North America. I have 90 books to go and, having read 230 books in the past 7 years of my journey, I reckon on another couple of years before I end up back in my starting point of London, England. Who knows where I'll be myself geographically when I reach that point :)
Well, I have finally finished my travels across the slumbering giant of a nation: China. It took a total of eleven books and thousands of miles to traverse this incredible place, a land of many paradoxes.
Here I found incredible extremes of wealth and poverty, hope and despair and humanity and (political) insanity...
Having now journeyed on to Korea, I find I am still in a land of paradoxes - hardly surprising as since the Korean War of the 1950s the land has been divided into the ultra-communist North and the democratic, western-leaning South.
In the North - courtesy of Adam Johnson's sweeping novel 'The Orphan Master's Boy' I encounter a modern-day nation still in the grip of a dictatorship that echoes the worst excesses of Maosim in China. Through the story of one individual - who's true name we never learn - we gain insights into this highly secretive nation and the constant tensions between its US-backed neighbour to the South.
However, this is a novel of humanity as well as politics - and the brutal de-humanising nature of the state; and the extremes to which personal liberty and values are tested by this - are chillingly reminiscent of the 'Big brother' regime depicted by George Orwell in his 1948 novel '1984'. Here, too, human relationships are discouraged and events and reality are only 'true' if depicted as so by the state. An extreme instance of this can be seen in the story of the state interrogator whose parents, who he shares a flat with, live in contant terror of being denounced by him - communicating to him only in parroted slogans praising the glorious North Korean nation and its 'Dear leader' - the ruler Kim Jong il.
The central 'Dear Leader' figure of Kim Jong il is both ludicrous and sinister in equal measures. At times almost childlike in his petulance and his paranoia at being shown up by his US enemies (for one US delegation he insists on building a reproduction of a Texas ranch on the airstrip where they land), yet also terrifying in his inhumanity and egoism (he imprisons an American female rower rescued by a North Korean fishing boat, for a year and forces her to transcribe his collected writings; yet believes there is a chance she will fall in love with him). The sickening depictions of the worse prisons - where food, medical assistance and any basic human provisions are denied, leave no room for even the harsh humour of caricature however.
Here then, is a novel that depicts a very real and contemporary modern-day regime that is all the more chilling for being laughably preposterous... a regime that places as much import on crushing the spirit and emotions of its subjects, as their physical beings.
I have just crossed the border of this benighted country and have arrived in Seoul, the South Korean capital, courtesy of 'Your Republic is Calling You', a novel which, whilst set in South Korea, also recalls the tense relationship between the two Koreas, as it follows a seemingly successful South Korean who has, in fact, been a 'sleeping' North Korean agent for over a decade and who is unexpectedly called back to his 'Republic,' facing him with a choice between his South Korean family and freedoms, and his sinister motherland.
Well, since leaving Fuling I've been racing through several Chinese cities so this is a bit of a condensed update!
My first stop was Dongguang, with Leslie Chang's fascinating account of young female migrants who have left their village homes for the dubious benefits on offer from China's huge industrialised factories (some as big as towns themselves, with their own stores) that make anything from sports shoes to car parts. We follow the true ife accounts of several of these girls as they strive to make their way, find their identity and avoid the pitfalls of this huge urban sprawl where friendships are fleeting, working hours long and wages low.
We also hear a parallel story of Chino-American Chang's own family history that mirrors the experience of the girls' own hopes and fears in migrating to a strange city miles from home. Along the way Chang makes some telling points about the new found freedoms of China's rural youth and the impact upon the traditional Chinese way of life...
Next up was the wonderful novel 'The Ghost of Neil Diamond' by debut author David Milnes. Set in the underbelly of Hong Kong, this unique tale follws the (mis)fortunes of a washed-up 48-year old Neil Diamond impersonator desperately trying to make his way in an impersonal city of karaoke bars and chepa hotels, whilst dealing with shady promoters and disillusioned tribute acts along the way. A great tale that manages to be both tragic and comic in equal measures - and often at the same time - this was my first '5 star' novel in quite some time.
Macau's book - 'Ballad of a Small Player' by Lawrence Osborne, took a similar theme - though here the ashed-up Englishman abroad is an invererate gambler, posing as a Lord but actually frittering away the ill-gotten gains that we embezzled from an aged widow back in the UK - purposely seeking to lose his fortune in the many high and low-brow casinos that pepper Macau and its neighbouring Kowloon district. Whilst the gambler 'Lord Doyle' is not what he seems, neither are the mysterious young 'karaoke girl' that he meets or, indeed, the night-time gambling dens of Macau. All in all an good read tinged with an elegaic, vaguely supernatural, air.
Most recently I have been visiting Shanghai with 'Red Mandarin Dress' - a detective novel by Qui Xiaolong. This novel features Detective Inspector Chen and is part of an ongoing crime novel series featuring the policeman, who used a combination of psychoanalysis, classical literary theory and old-fashioned police work to solve his cases. The case in this instance revolves around a series of murders all involving young women who are found in public places wearing only a torn, old-fashioned red mandarin dress. Chen must untangle the mystery of the dress and follow the leads - is this the work of a lunatic or are their subtler, even politicial, motives here...
And so, I now travel on a remote village in the vast East-central plains of Henan Province with 'The Dream of Ding Village' courtesy of celebrated Chinese auther Yan Lianke. Whilst this work is presented as a novel it is based on actual events whereby villagers were coerced into selling vast quantities of blood and then infected with the AIDS virus as they were injected with plasma to prevent anaemia. Whole villages were wiped out in this way, with no responsibility taken or reparation made. ' The Dream of Ding Village' focuses on one village, and the story of one family, torn apart when one son rises to the top of the Party pile as he exploits the situation, while another is infected and dies. Narrated by the dead boy, the novel is still banned in China....
I have just left Fuling in China's Southwestern Chongqing province thanks to 'River Town' by Peter Hessler.
Now in the massive industrial city of Dongguan in south central China with Leslie Chang's 'Factory Girls' which follows the stories of several of the millions of young female migrants who travel from the countryside to the cities to find their fortunes in the factories of Dongguan, tho the reality is often very different...
My next port of call takes me towards the vast landscape of China, where I shall be visiting each of its key provinces. Tibet, part of the southwest province, is a place that has always fascinated me and that I have been particularly looking forward to.
Tibet is known as the Land of Snows, the roof of the world. For centuries this mysterious Buddhist kingdom, locked away in its mountain fastness of the Himalaya, has exercised a unique hold on the imagination of the West. For explorers, imperialists and traders it was a forbidden land of treasure and riches. Dreamers on a spiritual quest have long whispered of a lost Shangri-la, steeped in magic and mystery. When the doors were finally flung open in the mid-1980s, Tibet lay in ruins. Between 1950 and 1970, the Chinese wrested control of the plateau, drove the Tibetans’ spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, and some 100,000 of Tibet’s finest into exile and systematically dismantled most of the Tibetan cultural and historical heritage, all in the name of revolution. For a while images of the Buddha were replaced by icons of Chairman Mao. Today, Tibetan pilgrims across the country are once again mumbling mantras and swinging their prayer wheels in temples that are heavy with the thick intoxicating aroma of juniper incense and yak butter. Monasteries have been restored across the country, along with limited religious freedoms. For this leg of I am reading “A Year in Tibet” by Sun Shuyun, an account of a year spent in the remote town of Gyantse filming for a BBC television series…
On a remote plain in the mountains of Tibet, an extraordinary ritual unfolds. A team of men are cutting up the body of the local blacksmith and feeding the bits to the gathering vultures. This is known as a “sky burial” and it is being observed, through binoculars, by a Chinese filmmaker and writer, Sun Shuyun. When the men began to sing as they worked, she feels horrified. Then she realises that “for them death is not the point… they are charged now with helping the soul on its journey”.
This is just one of the arresting vignettes in a fascinating account of the year that the author and a film crew spent in a village in a remote corner of Tibet. The book is far more than a thin spin-off of the television series which aired on BBC4 (the sky burial, for instance, was not filmed). Sun Shuyun, who studied Tibetan at Oxford, uses it to chart a much more personal and sometimes painful journey.
When she was a child, she was told by her father, an ardent Maoist, that “Tibet was a barbarous land where men drank blood”. She preferred to imagine it as a Shangri-La. The reality was that a gentle and ancient culture, founded on Buddhism, was being systematically destroyed by the great god Communism. The legacy of that struggle is all too familiar. In a poignant scene, Sun Shuyun is upset – but not surprised – when the owner of a pizza parlour shouts at her to “get lost” and go back to China.
Her book focuses on a less familiar story: despite oppression (mere mention of the Dalai Lama is an imprisonable offence), ancient ways are surviving and superstition, in a range of deities, persists. Polyandrous marriages (several husbands to one wife) are common and the local shaman, who works “as an intermediary between the known and the unknown”, is called “hailstone lama” because he is believed to have the power to stop the hail falling and ruining the harvest. (The Chinese pooh-pooh such primitivism and fire an anti-aircraft gun to disperse the hail clouds.)
Shuyun admits that her book allows her to be much more nuanced and detailed than films can. Presumably she is freer to speak her mind in print now that she is out of Tibet, so she does discuss the Panchen Lama in greater detail than in the programme, as well as broader concerns such as poverty and the appalling standard of healthcare available to Tibetan communities; prohibitively expensive for the majority who are subsistence farmers, wrenching a living from the high-altitude arable land that makes up less than 1 per cent of Tibet's territory.
Precisely because of her anthropological bent, Shuyun only discusses these things in as much as they are relevant to the families she spent the year following: a shaman and his family, monks at Gyantse monastery, a very poor rickshaw driver, a Communist party worker, a builder, a doctor and a hotel manager. When the shaman is asked to assess a couple's suitability for marriage, Shuyun learns that the bride will only be told she is getting married on her wedding day and that she will probably have to marry the groom's school-age younger brother because traditionally most Tibetan brothers share their wives in a very literal fashion. So it is only then that she writes about the paradoxical status of women in Tibet, as both revered and as chattels.
All this takes place in a beautiful but implacable environment. Seeing a group of villagers as specks in the vast landscape of mountain and plain, the author asks herself: “Is it any wonder they have so many gods?” No, Tibet is not Shangri-la – too much poverty, tension and oppression for that. “But it is extraordinary, it is spectacular and it is unique.”
From Tibet I move into the heartland of China, travelling to the small (population 200,000) city of Fuling in the Chongqing province. The vastness of China becomes apparent in this trip which takes over three days on various trains.
The first leg of the journey involves a five hour road journey from Gyantse to Lhasa, the main city of Tibet with a hired driver. I alight at Lhasa rail station ready to board the 9.40am train to Chongqing. I should note that the Chinese state-owned train station does not sell its tickets on the Internet and, as it is virtually impossible to purchase train tickets in local train ticket office in peak travel season, it is wise to book your train ticket with a reputable travel agencies in advance.
As the train to Chongqing will be my home for the next three days I decide to fork out the extra cash for a ‘soft sleeper’ at 11658 yen (around $195 US). The ‘soft sleepers’ provide a little more privacy with carriage of four bunks with reasonably comfortable beds, and a lockable door – as opposed to the ‘hard sleepers’ which carry eighteen people.
Whilst there is a pleasant enough restaurant car on the train for forty to fifty passengers where one can enjoy the beautiful scenery along Qinghai Tibet Railway whilst having lunch or breakfast or dinner; other amenities are more basic.
There is no private bath room on the train, and the passengers share two bathrooms with a sink on each carriage, though these are cleaned regularly (be warned – toilet paper is not provided!). There are also no showers.
It is therefore with some relief that I alight three days later in Chogqing at 8.33 in the morning. There is little respite however as the onward train from Chogqing North Railway station leaves for Fuling at 10.25am, though mercifully it is only a forty minute journey and I arrive at my next destination of Fuling, courtesy of “River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze” by Peter Hessler, at 11.06 in the morning.
Wishing you all a Happy New Year and a peaceful and prosperous 2015 wherever you are in the world.
My journey around the globe continues - I have been tardy with posting reviews of late but promise to catch up in the New Year (my New Year's resolution!!).
I am currently in Tibet on my travels - braving a particularly cold winter - courtesy of the book: A Year in Tibet. Highly recommended.
And work has commenced on Volume Three of 'Reading the World' in print - watch this space...
I've been getting some good press off the back of the publication of Volume 2 of Reading the World. You can read some selected articles below:
Canberra Times September 3
City News September 3
Nuneaton News September 2
Whilst currently travelling through Kenya, and thinking back to my 2011 travels in writing volume 2 of my Reading the World series of books, I've also been thinking forward to future locations...
As I have mentioned elsewhere, I am splitting the biggest countries in the world (Russia, China, India, Australia, Brazil, United States and Canada) up into regions; as it seems unfair to try to represent such vast and disparate countries with a single book. The questions is how to split these up in a fair way?
I split Russia up into its official 8 Federal districts, and China into its 6 Administrative regions (plus municipalities of Beijing, Hong Kong, Macau & Shanghai). In the light of this it seemed a bit unfair to only represent the US with the 4 rough regions I had allocated out the outset - especially given its diversity and its rich literary portfolio. Of course, reading a book from each of its 50 states would be a project in itself, therefore I have opted to revise my US list based on its 9 Official Census regions (+ Hawaii and Alaska given their unique nature, both culturally and geographically). I think this is a fair way to cover my trip to the US. I will also be reviewing its giant of a northern neighbour, Canada, and am considering an established 7 region model for this.
Whilst some may think I am merely prolonging my world travel (and there may be some truth there!), I am also trying to be fair in how I represent such huge areas that, whilst politically a single unit, encompass a vast array of different cultures, communities and literary traditions. That said, I would be delighted to hear your views on a) how I have delineated these countries and b) the books I have chosen to represent these regions. You will notice that my expansion of some regions mean there are some blanks for books to read - so PLEASE feel free to help me fill these in with relevant suggestions for books on these stopovers!
Thanks as always to my RTW followers!
Reading the World: A Global Journey through Literature