Summer Reading Suggestions Part Two: Armchair Traveling…

beach-reading-pacific-beach-books

Summer months can mean traveling, and even if you’re stuck at home in the heat (or cold!), you can still cover ground that’s very different to yours from the ease of your armchair…

Any editions of America’s Best Travel Writing will work and help your internal travels on the way, really, but it helps to align the editor person of that year with your own particular tastes. (Or so I learned the other day.) I really recommend Mary Roach’s book from when she edited…. But then I’m a Mary Roach fangirl to nth degree. There are a lot of others from which to choose…

If you have a lot of luggage to take with you, have a look at Victorian traveler Francis Galton’s The Art of Travel: Shifts and Contrivances Available in Wild Countries (1854), and be thankful that you don’t have to carry all his stuff. 🙂

As I live in Texas and summers can get pretty hot (114 degrees the other day), I really enjoy reading books about adventures in cooler places as they can remove me (at least in my mind) from the high temperatures that we have here.

Going northwards to the Canadian wilds is cooler, and Mary Bosanquet’s true recollection, Saddlebags for Suitcases (1942), is a good account of how she traveled across Canada on horseback before she had to settle down and get married. (Lucky to have such rich and generous parents, but good read all the same.)

If you’d rather stay on the main land of the U.S., have a looksee at Charles Dickens’ excellent travelogue of his time in the States, American Notes for General Circulation (1842). (Old but still relevant and en-pointe a lot of the time. Really funny in some ways, and I think if you’re a fan of Bill Bryson, you’d like this one. Seriously. A lot of overlaps.)

For a very different perspective of traveling and adventuring, the poignant and exciting two-volume diaries of Cherry Aspley-Garrard’s harrowing trip with Captain Scott to the Antarctic is riveting. (And cold.)

If you’d prefer Siberian levels of cold, try Esther Hautzig’s compulsively readable The Endless Steppe about her childhood where her family gets sent to Siberia as part of the WWII action in Poland. (It’s very good. And it’s very cold. And it’s amazing what the human spirit can do to survive.)

For more cold (but not *quite* so cold) reading, how about Crowdie and Cream by Finley J. McDonald and The Crofter and the Laird by John McPhee? Both accounts of living in the Hebrides up in north Scotland. Brrr.

More coolish travel accounts include Jonathon Raban’s really good 1987 book, Coasting, about his time traveling in a small boat around the edges of United Kingdom. (English summer is not known to be very sunny and warm at times…)

Raban’s a really good writer, and as a related aside: he has another book from when he was traveling around North Dakota and its environs, called Badlands (pre-blog). (Just really good solid travel non-fiction, and fun if you’re stuck in a chair in a hot place comme moi.)

If you’d like to travel to the Pacific islands of the state of Hawaii, the non-fiction writing of Tony Horowitz is fascinating: Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook has Gone Before (2003) follows the journey of Captain Cook except through modern eyes and with modern transportation. Really interesting and written with a good sense of humor.

The traveling theme continues with the excellent Chasing the Monsoon, Alexander Frater’s 1990 account of how he “followed” the arrival of the yearly monsoon in India. A fun, lively and respectful account of some of the people he met, and the adventures that came up.

For a different take on India, there’s a really good story of a young man from India who came back to his roots from his Australian adopted family via Google Earth and some plain hard work: Saroo Brierley’s A Long Way Home is a good read. (Writing’s not great, but story is fantastic. In retrospect, maybe just watch the movie, Lion. 🙂 )

While you’re out that way, drop into the Antipodes (to me) and have a look at Once We Were Warriors by Alan Duff (1990), an excellent and very powerful novel about Maori life in New Zealand…. (It’s not a happy read, but it’s doggone excellent.)

Traveling further afield, Monique and the Mango Rains (Kris Holloway) (2007), a memoir which tells of the friendship between Peace Corps. Volunteer Holloway and a young village midwife in Mali (West Africa). A very positive and honest take on this particular country…

For another positive take on both the progress in HIV/AIDS treatments and a look at Botswana, try Saturday is for Funerals (2010) by Unity Dow and Max Essex. If you’d prefer a graphic novel of young life in the Ivory Coast, pick up the volumes starting with Aya by Margaureite Abouet and Clement Oubrerie (2007) which show a more typical side of life in Africa and teenagers dealing with typical teenaged issues.

Or you could veer madly to the east on the map and steer your way to North Korea with Nothing to Envy (Barbara Demick) and learn of (the rather strange) life in that country. While you’re out this way, check out anything by Peter Hessler for a look at life in China when he was living there…

Back stateside and if you’d rather travel back in time,  there’s a really interesting book that digs into the history of Frontier Counties in the U.S. (i.e. those counties which have rather low populations so they’re very rural) so you might like Duncan Dayton’s Miles from Nowhere: In Search of the American Frontier (1993). (I happened to love it and would readily read anything else by this author. Published by an academic press, so dense information but very readable.)

And if you’re heading to the beach, then Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gift from the Sea (1955) is a thoughtful short (and pretty easy) read. This is not actually a shell identification guidebook :-), but it does revolve around different shells although it’s a tad more philosophical. Provocative and supportive for women of all ages, but particularly for, shall we say, women of a distinctive age. 🙂

More to come, but this next time with a focus on readings and writings by POC authors…

Hooray for summer!

The Ginger Tree – Oswald Wynd (1977)

 

The Ginger Tree - Wynd

Poking around the older interwebs, I came across this title (The Ginger Tree) from another discussion with some fellow book readers, and remembering it was in the forgotten depths of my TBR shelves, I pulled it out. What a treat.

One. This is epistolary and you know I likes me some epistolary novel every now and then.
Two. It has a Feminist-Lite slant to it (despite of it being authored by a man – not that guys can’t relate to female characters, but this was really well done). I like some good Feminist reads.
Three. It was set in a time and country very different to where I am right now. (I wanted to armchair-travel a bit. Going back in time was a nice extra touch.)

This is the tale of Mary MacKenzie, a young Scottish lass who travels with her chaperone to the Far East and China to marry an only vaguely known fiancé who is working out there as a military attaché. Mary is young on many levels, just not with years, and so there is a lot of learning that goes on as the narrative progresses. Mary learns to discard the old manners and expectations of her bossy mother in Scotland, a freedom initially symbolized by Mary refusing to wear her corsets as her voyage takes her into hotter and hotter climes. Her freedom is also exponentially increased when her chaperone unexpectedly dies during the crossing, leaving Mary free to make her own friends. This was her first real taste of independence and she loved it.

So – this is a love story – girl meets boy type – but this has a big twist in it. Mary marries her fiancé but ends up having a relationship with a Japanese nobleman – a move which affects her for the rest of her (and his) life. Being so far from home can be exhilarating freeing at first, but when you are alone, divorced, and pregnant from a high class wealthy man who is already married, things start to get complicated.
It would have been very easy for Wynd to just write Mary as having an epiphany from her experience and turning it around into some other transformative experience, but he doesn’t take the obvious route. Mary is difficult as a person – she wants to fit in with the Chinese and Japanese cultures, but can’t seem to find a place to settle between her Western upbringing and her Far Eastern present, and so frequently is stuck in the Outsider position of both cultures.

The author, Oswald Wynd, had lived in China and Japan for many years, some as a POW in a camp in Malaya in WWII, and you can tell that he loves and respects the cultural differences whilst also acknowledging that these cultural differences can provide long-term barriers to both the Westerners and the Easterners.

This is a far-ranging book, time-wise, covering the beginning of the twentieth century through to WWII, as the world grows and changes so does Mary. Another reviewer pointed out that although The Ginger Tree presents itself as a Feminist-Lite narrative (and the protagonist recognizes the lack of gender equality in the different cultures), she still allows herself to get treated as a doormat. I suppose her lack of assertiveness, in this situation, was that she may have felt that she didn’t have many choices: she was divorced, with two children (one of whom had been taken away from her and one of whom was obviously of mixed parentage), she had had a romantic relationship with a nobleman, and she had no money, no job and nowhere to live. Going back to Scotland was not really an option when there is no communication with her family, and with no money, how would she get there? When one reviews her life in those terms, then it’s easier to empathize with why she did what she did. She’s not the most likeable character in the world, but she is humanly understandable.

PBS Masterpiece has the TV adaptation of this on-line – wonder how good that is…?

Waiting – Ha Jin (1999)

A beautiful sparsely written novel set in China and focused on an army doctor who lives in the city, while being unhappily married to his wife who lives in his old village. The doctor has been separated from his wife for years, and has an ongoing relationship with a nurse where he works. However, in Communist China at that time, it was very difficult to get divorced unless you have been separated from each other for at least 18 years.  Only then, could the husband get a divorce without consent from the wife.

So, this novel follows this story in 1970’s China, and gives a clear picture of life in that regime, where people lived under very strict rules and had to be wary about what they said and who they were seen with in public. It’s a hard life for ordinary people, as relationships were very public and if seen as inappropriate, could lead to severe punishment.

Lin Kong, the army doctor stuck in a loveless marriage with a faraway rural wife, would like to get a divorce and every summer, visits his old village and his wife to ask for one. However, he is torn about the separation as his wife, Shuyu, is an uneducated peasant who has helped to raise their only daughter alone and has also helped nurse his ailing parents in their later lives. She has basically done nothing wrong, and since the marriage was arranged, it’s not her fault. However, Kong is extremely embarrassed about her, about her uneducated ways and her bound feet. Every summer, Kong visits her village and asks for the divorce, and every summer, she goes along with it until they are in court, and then says no, not just to be difficult but because (a) she has no other way to live, and (b) her brother, also a villager, sees that when she divorces, he will lose power and land in the village.

In the mean time, in the city where Kong works, his girlfriend, Manna Wu, is becoming more impatient about having to wait for a divorce before they can take their relationship officially public. The delay puts a strain on their relationship as it drags on, and although Manna Wu asks Kong repeatedly to get a divorce, he is torn between his loyalty to Shuyu and her village life, and his love for the more worldly nurse. It is an interesting contrast between city and village life, where life is very removed and feudal, and both under the eye of Communist China which affected every facet of normal day-to-day routine.

Kong is not a man who feels that deeply about things: he likes his city girlfriend, he likes his village wife, and if he could swing it, he would leave things much the same. But it is not that easy. “Waiting”, the title of the book, refers to the endless months of delay of getting the divorce, and refers to everyone in the various relationships. I could also argue that it refers to everyday life in China where the ordinary person is waiting for life to change for the better, somehow, being powerless to affect any change right now. I think this is really interesting to ponder.

What I really admired about this novel was the style of writing: it was sparse, almost poetic in how Jin selected each word. There are few extraneous words hanging around, and each word adds in some manner. It’s closely structured, very controlled, and rather reminiscent of both the constricted life of Communist China and also the highly ritualized ceremonies such as the Tea Ceremony. Everything is carefully measured out, slowly completed…

I really enjoyed this. Ha Jin grew up in China, but has lived in the US since the mid-80’s. He based this story on a true story he heard when looking after his wife’s mum in a Chinese hospital where something rather similar was occurring. It was awarded the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award.