Summer Reading Suggestions Part Two: Armchair Traveling…

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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 Endless Steppe – Esther Hautzig (1968)

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In my last post, I had mentioned that I had fallen upon the Dewey 900s at the library. Such riches that I didn’t even knew existed! Without any more further gushing, let me now introduce you to the title “The Endless Steppe” by Esther Hautzig.

As a child, Hautzig and her family had the bad luck to be living in Poland (now Lithuania) just as WWII was starting up and Germany was invading places left, right, and center. She had come home from school one day, only to be faced with the news that she and her parents and grandparents were going to be sent away to Siberia that same day for being evil capitalists. They could only take one small bag with each of them, and there was very little time of to think of what to include in your luggage. How would you ever know what to pack quickly for an unexpected and unwanted trip-with-no-return to a forced labor camp in Siberia?

Hautzig does a great job of communicating the chaos and panic which would happen if your family were suddenly told one day to leave. Siberia is cold, but how cold? What would the living conditions be like as compared to their upper-middle class life in Poland? Looking back at this with twenty-first century eyes, it’s almost unbelievable that this all happened to millions of innocent families, but it did and this autobiography details the experience through the eyes of a young 11 year old girl.

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The family spend weeks in an unheated cattle car on a train, never knowing where they were going or when they would get there. There were no bathroom facilities, the cars were very crowded with no seats, and no food or water (apart from that that they had brought themselves). None of the passengers were prepared for this (because – why would you be?) and as the train went east, the temperature dropped and the scenery became flat and treeless.

At first, it seems quite an adventure, but as conditions deteriorated, the seriousness of the situation becomes clear. What also becomes clear is that the family and their fellow passengers can do absolutely nothing about their unexpected journey, apart from try to be mentally strong. Her parents (and grandparents) had been of a professional class (her father was an engineer), but as the miles passed, they found out that whatever their professions may have been was to be of no importance in their Siberian future.

The family was separated (never to see each other again), and Esther and her parents eventually wound up at a gypsum mine where her father would be expected to drive a horse and cart, and her mother – who had never worked in her life – was going to be dynamiting the gypsum in the mine. Food was in short supply with watery cabbage soup being the most common meal, and although life is really very hard, Esther and her family survive through the extreme temperatures with few resources. Their privileged life in Lithuania was of little help to them now that they were reduced to survival mode.

This autobiography is an interesting read about a pretty typical middle class family who is suddenly thrown into an atypical situation and how they cope. It’s not easy, but by the time five years have passed, the war is over and the family are set to return. One would think that they would be very excited to get back home and to their former lives, but getting home would mean returning to nothing as their house and possessions would not be waiting. Additionally, Esther had spent five years growing up on the steppe, and to her, it was home much more so that Lithuania would be.

This was an interesting read. I think it’s classified as a YA but the story is so well written that it really sucked me in. Interestingly, the story only came to light when the author Esther Hautzig wrote a letter to a journalist who had written another article about this whole thing, and the reporter suggested to Esther that she write her story down. Hautzig didn’t do any more autobiographical work after that, and in fact, kept well away from it publishing a few titles to do with frugal sewing on a budget.

Despite the YA label, this was an excellently written book about a harrowing experience.

The Death of Ivan Ilych – Leo Tolstoy (1886)

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I dug this title up as it was mentioned in my recent read of Gawande’s On Mortality book, and I’m all about following down the rabbit holes of different books and topics sometimes. Although somewhat intimidated by Russian authors (although not sure why), I picked this up with trepidation and then relaxed. It was going to be a good read.

Gawande’s reference to this Tolstoy novella meant that I knew that the plot was about a man dying, but the actual details were vague for me (which I was happy about). I opened the book one morning and then finished it that evening and it was a great read. The plot itself is pretty simple: a man works hard in his career, gets married with kids, falls off a ladder and gets slightly hurt, and then ends up dead. (And I’m not giving the game away here. This is what the story is famous for, after all.) However, it’s a lot more than that as Tolstoy (via his lead Ivan Ilych Golovin) ruminates on the process of dying and how it may affect one’s thinking.

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Young Tolstoy.

Ivan Ilych has done all the “right” things in his life, he feels: he has worked hard on his career rising in the legal ranks of the municipal court, he has married well, and has a good family. So why is he so uncomfortable dying in this way? And that’s what most of this work is about – how the dying process evolves for both the participant and the family around him. It’s really quite fascinating especially after that recent read of Gawanade’s book (which also focuses on death and dying). Sounds desperately morbid (doesn’t it?) but it’s not. This dying thing happens to everyone, and as with almost anything else, the more you know the better. (At least that is how I’m approaching things).

Using the POV of Ivan Ilych himself, the story follows his thinking process as his life winds down. His pain in the side (originally triggered by that fall at home) worsens, and as it progressively gets more and more painful, he visits a few doctors trying to get his diagnosis. However, the doctors are unable to agree and give him a final diagnosis (let alone a cure) and so Ivan struggles on, unable to talk about his concerns about dying with no one, not even the medical professionals and let alone with his family.

And I find this to be so relevant with attitudes towards death today. I’ve noticed that when one has a difficult illness, people usually don’t mind acknowledging it at first when everything is mostly normal, but as time progresses and one’s prognosis worsens, many people would prefer to talk around it than actually address it face on (a la elephant in the living room). This is how Ivan Ilych’s family and friends handled the situation, and so the reader learns about the frustrations, struggles and the sheer loneliness of the person who’s doing the dying. I really don’t think that this is an untrue situation for a lot of people, but I wish it wasn’t that way.

Gawande mentioned that this novella was taught in med school in a class about death and dying, but I’m not sure how common that is across the nation. (Anyone know?) However, common or not, I think this is an excellent novella about a very common natural human process which is frequently denied or skirted around as people are uncomfortable with it (for whatever reason).

A provocative read about a pretty ordinary guy who is going through a totally natural process and who is reflecting on his life lived. Although the subject may be dark, this is extremely well written, not maudlin at all, and is a good demonstration of something that happens but most people would prefer not to talk about. It was an excellent read when paired with reading the Gawande book. Recommended.

 

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich – Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1963)

“How can you expect a man who is warm to understand a man who is cold?”

Having had this book on my shelves for quite some time, and having been far too intimidated to read much Russian lit post-grad school, this looked short enough for it to be manageable to me. So picked it off the shelf expecting some dense complex intricate hard-to-follow plot with weird Russian names (:-) ) and actually come to find out that it’s really a very good story and the names are very do-able and don’t change from page to page (a la War and Peace).

I had very little idea about what this story was about, apart from it was Russian and about a prisoner of war camp. I also hoped it would be set in cold weather as I had just about had enough of the heat this summer in Texas, and set in Siberia, it did cool me down weather-wise.

The book was published in 1963, and is set in a Soviet labor camp in the 1950’s gulag* system, smack in the middle of Stalin’s time, and was notable as this was first time that anything like this (anything critical of the government) had ever been published in Russia.  Ivan, the protagonist mentioned in the title, is an innocent political prisoner being charged with spying, and the whole book features what happens in just one day of his life in the camp.

Solzhenitsyn had actually been imprisoned in a Soviet labor gulag camp from 1945-1953, so he was familiar with what he wrote. It’s a very tough life – very cold, harsh, unprotected, hungry – and as in other prisoner-of-war situations, it’s a brutal dog-eat-dog world for the campers. After he was released, Solzhenitsyn wrote this book, and submitted it to the Communist Party Central Committee for approval to publish. After some editing of the text, the story was published as a short story in a Moscow literary journal and the world was introduced to the existence of these labor camps. It was the first major piece of Soviet literature to be published with a political theme since the 1920’s (and it was written by a non-party member) so it was a sensation when it was released.

Publication of “One Day…” lead to the outside acknowledgement of such human rights abuse in Russia, but it also heralded allegations of Solzhenitsyn being against Soviet ideals, and he was branded an “enemy of the state” by one Soviet newspaper. In 1969, he was expelled from the Soviet Union of Writers (which was a gatekeeper for published works at that time), and in 1970, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in Literature.  However, Solzhenitsyn didn’t feel that he could accept the prize in Sweden, and Sweden refused to give it to him in another location, so he didn’t actually get the award until 1974 when he was deported from the USSR after having been arrested by the KGB.  (The KGB also reportedly tried to assassinate him with ricin in August 1971, an attack which didn’t kill him, but did make him ill for some time. He was allowed to return in 1994 after the Soviet political system had collapsed.)

Quite a story and quite a book. It’s shocking to realize that this was based on truth. It’s also amazing to think of how this was the life as lived by a “well-behaved” prisoner – one who followed all the rules and did what he was told to do. Even with these choices, life was horrible. I can only imagine what life was like for someone who was rebellious in some manner during their PoW days.

At around the same time as reading “One Day…”, we also happened to watch the movie “The Way Back” with Colin Farrell, Ed Harris and others. This also addresses the gulag camps, is based on a true story, and features a small group of men who escape from a camp and walk (without maps or support equipment) across the Russian steppes, the desert and the Alps to India. Blinkin’ amazing. These guys were incredibly tough! I found it really interesting to watch this movie having just finished “One Day…” Fascinating.

Gulag: the Soviet Union’s forced labor camp system from 1918-1956.

So – great read all in all.