Reading the World: Travel Through Books During COVID-19
It’s been a minute. So much going on. So many blogs I haven’t written. So many things. All the things.
As I shared in my COVID update post, we have not traveled at all save a short weekend trip to a cabin nearby. We canceled and postponed a whole slew of trips. And we have the misfortune of living in one of the flight paths to Seattle’s airport, and every time I see a plane fly over my little heart is sad because I wish it was safe to get on one right about now.
But what if we can just travel through words? It’s not the same thing, but doesn’t it get you just a little bit excited?
As I shared with y’all in the beginning of 2019, I’m on a quest to read a book from every country in the world. And today I’ll share my top picks from my journey so far in case you need to escape too!
Bangladesh: A Golden Age (Tahmina Anam): This book is set primarily in 1971 during the Bangladeshi war for independence from Pakistan (recall that Pakistan was previously two separate states on either side of India). Rather than a war epic, Anam tells this story through the perspective of Rehana, a woman who is widowed with two teenage children. Through this story we see the multiple ways that her life is impacted, from hiding rebels to watching both of her children risk their lives for independence. I found the book to be an engrossing story, and even though the book is divided into chapters to mark the passage of time it felt disorienting and all one big mess, which is how I imagine a war would feel if one was living through it.
Botswana: When Rain Clouds Gather (Bessie Head): This book was fascinating, though a little big up and down. It follows Makhaya, a political refugee who hops the border fence separating South Africa and Botswana. He’s able to navigate to a refugee village of sorts, where he befriends the Batswana people as well as an English (white) man named Gilbert who seems to be living in Botswana to improve farming practices. It was very useful to see the “white savior” concept explored in fiction, and doubly so because Head, the author, was a refugee in Botswana herself. Ultimately, as with many books in my Read the World quest, I was left with more questions than answers and my lack of understanding was again exposed
Burundi: Small Country (Gael Faye): I admit that before reading this book that my knowledge about the nation of Burundi couldn’t fill a Post-It note. However after reading this book I know I could fill that note and I’m curious to learn more about this small Central African nation. The book appears to be a somewhat true, somewhat fictionalized account of Gael Faye’s life as a young boy in Burundi at a time when the genocide in neighboring Rwanda is about to begin. We get a glimpse into many things through his words — into his life as a biracial child in Africa (his father is European, his mother African), into a child’s life in Africa, and into the life of someone who experiences civil war and violence. His words were at time heartbreaking and painful to read, but they continued to remind me of my ignorance about Africa.
Finland: The Summer Book (Tove Jansson): What a lovely, lovely book! I have not read any of Jansson’s previous books but this will be the first of many that I read. Told in a number of vignettes, we get to know a small family (father, grandmother, granddaughter) who live on a Finnish island in the summer. With rich imagery and the inclusion of small details Jansson makes you feel like you are living on the island with them! Highly recommend.
Germany: The End of Days (Jenny Erpenbeck): This was such an interesting book in the vein of Life After Life or The Fifteen Lives of Henry August (but I think it predates them both). The book, translated into English from the original German, follows an unnamed woman in five shorter novellas, detailing five possible ways that she dies, and through it we start to appreciate who she is and how just a small change results in a completely different outcome. I had a hard time deciding whether to give this book a 3-star or a 4-star review, but went with the 4-star review. The third of the five novellas was really the slow one, detailing her brush with Socialism. Also, I highly recommend that you read each of the novellas in their entirety — I lost a lot of momentum by not finishing them all at once. I will note that this is the third Erpenbeck book I’ve read and I highly recommend her other writing as well, especially Go Went Gone.
Ghana: Homegoing (Yaa Gyasi): WOW. What a phenomenal book about two halves of a family from Ghana. The story tracks two half sisters and their many generations of descendants, giving us glimpses into the rise and fall of a family across generations, and culminating with the two halves of the whole coming in contact with one another, but in a much different way than I had expected. This was perhaps one of my favorite books of 2019!
Iceland: Butterflies in November (Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir): This is the second book I’ve read by Icelandic author Ólafsdóttir and, like the previous book I read by this author it is funny, quirky, a little bit dark, and unresolved. In some sense I feel like Ólafsdóttir’s work is a series of lovely vignettes about life in modern Iceland, giving us glimpses into what it’s like to live in such an isolated, harsh place. Another quirky thing I liked about this book was that there is a section at the end of the novel with recipes for all of the Icelandic food that are discussed in the book.
Japan: The Traveling Cat Chronicles (Hiro Arikawa): I am a huge sucker for animal stories, especially those that feature cats, and this was no exception. Translated into English from the original Japanese, this book follows a man and his cat, Nana, told from the cat’s perspective (as well as some 3rd person omniscient narration to fill in the gaps). As you might imagine I think a lot about my cat’s rich inner life, but to have someone else write about this so beautifully touched my heart. All we know at the beginning of the book is that Nana has been saved by Satoru, his human, and is now no longer living as a stray. They are to begin on a journey together, the result of which is that Nana will find a new home. He’s a bit confused by this, but as the book progresses we start to understand why. I cried through the last 20 pages of the book, but it was a good cry — a reminder of why cats can make our lives so special.
South Korea: The Vegetarian (Han Kang): This was the most interesting and disturbing book I have read in a few years. Told from the perspective of 3 semi-unreliable narrators, it centers around a woman who has a terrible dream and decides not to eat meat — and all of the fallout and abuse that follows. I’m still scratching my head on the ending, though…
Turkey: The Bastard of Istanbul (Elif Shafak): WOW! What an incredible novel that weaves together the stories of two 19-year-old girls, one Armenian-American and one Turkish, and how their stories, and that of their families, overlap in the past and in present-day. The writing is decadent — I love, love, loved reading Shafak’s words, especially her descriptions of both Turkish and Armenian food. I can’t wait to read more of her books and spend more time in her Istanbul.
Antigua and Barbuda: A Small Place (Jamaica Kincaid): This set of essays was fantastic. Kincaid writes with so much passion about Antigua, noticing what it was, is, and has become throughout periods of colonization, freedom, and then re-colonization when Westerners “rediscovered” the island. This was only a short piece so I’m looking forward to learning more about Antigua through Kincaid’s words.
Belarus: Voices From Chernobyl (Svetlana Alexievich): This book was heartbreaking. It is a series of collected narratives following Chernobyl, which, though it was located in modern-day Ukraine, mainly impacted people right across the border in Belarus. The book tells the stories of everyday people who were evacuated (with no information) or sent in to clean up (with no information and little to no protective gear) and the aftermath — the deformities, the cancers, the horrific deaths. I think this passage summarizes it well:
“There you are: a normal person. A little person. You’re just like everyone else — you go to work, you return from work. You get an average salary. Once a year you go on vacation. You’re a normal person! And then one day you’re suddenly turned into a Chernobyl person. Into an animal, something that everyone’s interested in, and that no one knows anything about. You want to be like everyone else, and now you can’t. People look at you differently. They ask you: was it scary? How did the station burn? What did you see? And, you know, can you have children? Did you wife lave you? At first we were all turned into animals. The very word “Chernobyl” is like a signal. Everyone turns their head to look at you. He’s from there!”
The other thing that this book helped me understand was the loyalty to the Party, to Communism. It’s something I have an intellectual understanding of but these stories really helped me to understand why people didn’t question what they were told and did what they were supposed to do:
“So here’s the answer to your question: why did we keep silent knowing what we knew? Why didn’t we go out onto the square and yell the truth? We compiled our reports, we put together explanatory notes. But we kept quiet and carried out our orders without a murmur because of Party discipline. I was a Communist. I don’t remember that any of our colleagues refused to go work in the Zone. Not because they were afraid of losing their Party membership, but because they had a faith. They had faith that we lived well and fairly, that for us man was the highest thing, the measure of all things.”
Democratic Republic of the Congo: How Dare the Sun Rise (Sandra Uwiringiyimana): What a powerful tribute to not only Sandra’s experience but to bring awareness to the experiences of refugees unsettled and settled. While challenging to read at times, it also gives a window into what it’s like to resettle as a refugee in the United States and pushed my thinking in that area as well.
Iran: All the Shah’s Men (Stephen Kinzer): This was a difficult book to read in that it makes you confront some of the ways that American (and British) interference in the Middle East has perhaps irreparably damaged our relationships with countries in the region. This particular book deals with the 1953 coup in Iran, orchestrated by the US and the UK. What was hardest to read is that there were so many opportunities for cooler heads to prevail, yet none of them did, and through many small actions and interference Iran was set on a very different trajectory (one that led to the 1979 revolution that many of us know more about).
Libya: The Return (Hisham Matar): Wow — I really enjoyed this book, and it was also deeply uncomfortable to realize how little I actually know about Libya, and that’s given that there has been such conflict in that country in the past several years I’m a little embarrassed that this is my first dive into the country. Matar tells the story of his father, jailed in the mid-1990s, and his family’s quest to understand what has happened to him. Some family members assume he is dead; others prefer to think he has lost his memory or is still locked away somewhere. Both from his home in London (where he has lived for 25 years) and during his first trip back to Libya in decades, Matar works to piece together the story, and as he does so he shares the resilience of the Libyan people throughout years of oppression. While I believe this book gave me good insight into this country, there is much more to know about it than its recent troubles, so I am interested in finding additional literature about this land.
Have you read a book from a different country or perhaps books-in-translation? Or perhaps you have recommendations for a book that you particularly loved?