The travel read. That lovely time when you can filter your mind away from the day to day and dream of new places, bygone times and mystical tales.
I’ll publish this blog at regular intervals once I’ve read a bunch of books. I hope you find it useful and I’d be really pleased to get recommendations on other books that I should read as this trip and others progress.
From the Fatherland with Love – Ryu Murakami
Ryu Murakami, not to be confused with Haruki Murakami, is the bad boy of Japanese literature. I really didn’t want to read something that was too historic like a Shogun type novel perhaps, but rather something that really got under the skin of the politics and current state of Japan. This is a rollicking tale of a small invasion by North Korea into the south of Japan (no, I haven’t spoiled it) and what happens next. In 600 pages or so, Murakami tells a tale that brings to life the politics, intrigue, underground, conservatism, confusion and complicated nature of Japanese life and its systems. One isn’t sure if Murakami is criticising Japanese life but he certainly does not tow any party line and creates a tale that is jaw dropping at every turn.
Coin Locker Babies – Ryu Murakami
I perhaps made the mistake of reading two book by the same author in quick succession, but I was so enamoured by From the Fatherland and we were travelling to Tokyo that I thought I needed another injection of Murakami drug-fuelled energy. And that’s what I got. Coin Locker Babies is a mesmerising tale of two young boys that are abandoned by their mothers in coin lockers in a train station and describes what happens to them. As fast as a rocket taking off and as venomous as a poisonous snake, Murakami builds characters as good as Chabon’s Cavalier and Clay and paints a picture of Tokyo at its fearsome and roller-coasting best.
The Sorrow of War – Bao Ninh
I actually started Matterhorn before The Sorrow of War, but thought half way that I needed a different view. There are hundreds of books about the US / Chinese / Russian war in Vietnam (sorry, should that be the north / south Vietnam war?) and it’s hard to decide what to read but I found this book engaging, awful and inspiring at the same time. War is a disgusting matter in whatever context (let’s get that out of the way first) but the complex nature of civil war that is depicted in this book is perhaps not one that is well known to Western readers. Written from the perspective of a north Vietnamese soldier, it describes his experiences during the war, the aftermath and its effect on Vietnamese life and love. It fills a gap left by Hollywood depictions of Chinooks and M16s.
Matterhorn – Karl Marlantes
I read this in two halves, between The Sorrow of War. At 800 pages it’s long, an epic and I understand it took Marlantes (a former US Marine) 30 years to write. Should we feel sorry for these guys? That’s up to you but one thing that is certain is that the cruelty of the US politicians and army majors to their officers and soldiers was appalling. Men taken away from their decrepit lives at home to fight a war in a place where most people didn’t know against a people they had no gripe against. The pawns of war were, in the case of this book, the soldiers, and the brutality they inflicted on each other and others is terrifying. This book traces the lengthy travails of a combat division through the jungle trying to take seemingly un-takeable positions. It is very readable, well worth the effort and is sometimes similar to a dreamy Terence Mallick movie.
Dragon Apparent, travels in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam – Norman Lewis
Perhaps one for a long train or plane journey. Norman Lewis was a spy before becoming a celebrated travel writer and journalist. Lewis traveled across these three wonderful countries of IndoChina during the 1950s before all hell broke loose with the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and American War in Vietnam. He depicts a part of the world that was then unknown to much of the rest of the world, and captures a moment in time when the French still had a bizarre stranglehold over the area but which is in the throes of being overthrown by local forces. It is a violent yet enlightening time. Lewis’ walks through Angkor Wat shows a hidden temple city crumbling into the jungle that is untouched by the selfie stick or audio guide and his meetings with the Emperor of Cambodia show a life of simplicity and nobility amongst the local people. Most of what’s online about travelling is top ten tips on this and that and I much prefer the more explanatory books that get under the skin of places, cultures and history. Lewis is a good example of this and despite his sometimes pompous English-gentleman’s style, his books are very enlightening.
Light relief break – Born to Run – Bruce Springsteen
‘So you think that maybe you ain’t that young anymore?’. I’m not and needed this for some light relief. He didn’t have it easy to start with, but Bruce is ridiculously honest in this life story and tells you how it is, focusing a lot on his years of depression. Not everyone will enjoy this or his music, but he has matured and mellowed with age and his ability to craft a song about home, the things we dread and the struggles we have speak to me and if they speak to you then this is an excellent beach-read book.
The Swan Book – Alexis Wright
I’m unsure having read this book by Alexis Wright if I was dreaming or experiencing a nightmare whilst reading it – perhaps both. It’s a futuristic, dystopic tale where Australia has become a barren wasteland due to environmental destruction and an Aboriginal man has become the country’s first indigenous leader. Much like the stories that are the backbone of ‘the Dreaming’ about Aboriginal culture and life, it is written in a dream-like state that flows and glides you through what is an awful and shocking description of a future Australian state and what it does to its indigenous community and environment. There is a lot of excellent writing about the Aboriginal community but I like Wright’s futuristic view that is, I think terrifying and perhaps, if you think about it, not so unbelievable.
Picnic at Hanging Rock – Joan Lindsay
An Australian classic. At times believable and at other times not, this is a great tale of a group of Australian school girls who go missing at the site of a monolithic rock in Australia’s outback. It’s an eerie tale that shows the unknown nature of the outback at its most fearsome and depicts characters and their relationships with countryside life in rural Australia at the turn of the century. It’s a book that has been debated since it was published in 1967 and remains a mysterious story despite the publication of the missing last chapter in 1987.
Releasing the bats – writing your way out of it – DBC Pierre
Well if you want to know how to write, when to write and why to write then read this. DBC packs a of punch and delivers a soliloquy on what’s it like to write, the angers, trauma, brilliance of it all, bare bones style in a way that he only seems to know. It you want to also learn a bit more of the truth about you, yes you, then read this. It’s part a book about writing but also part a psychoanalytic attempt to open our minds and be honest with ourselves without any Freudian bullshit. I devoured it in one sitting, suggest you do the same.
Ways of Going Home – Alejandro Zambra
I struggled to think of what to read whilst in Chile for four days. The poems of Neruda, the long tales of Allende and Mistral, the plays of Dorfman, all great, but somehow I wanted something that was modern, yet informative about the past and a book that dealt with it through the eyes of someone who is our age. Zambra fits the bill. He’s one of Chile’s most well-known contemporary authors who broke into the scene with Bonsai and the Private Lives of Trees. Ways of Going Home is a tale of a young boy brought up during the Pinochet regime and during an earthquake who returns to his childhood home as a grown up to meet a woman he befriended when young. Without giving too much away, Zambra weaves through the lives of this young man’s family and friends and depicts the struggles they all had under the dictatorship in an honest and simple way. It’s a perfect book, delivered succinctly with not a word misplaced.
My Father’s Ghost is Climbing in the Rain – Patricio Pron
Another young South American writer full of style, anger and brilliant story telling ability. Mostly a short story writer and an academic, Pron tells the story of a man who goes home to Buenos Aires from Berlin to see his ill father. What transpires is an intricate and often slightly confusing tale of the disappeared in Argentina during the junta of the 70s and 80s. I wonder if the style is confusing on purpose as it deals with the problems, dishonesty, violence and injustice that existed in Argentina during that time. You come out of it feeling that a weight has been taken off Argentina’s shoulders as it looks and continues to look for the disappeared. What is amazing about all these books is how they take you under the skin of the history of the country and how long it takes countries to untangle themselves from webs that generations before spun for them.
The Blizzard – Excellent quarterly football magazine
The Third Reich – Roberto Bolano
I’ve never read any Bolano but was convinced to give him a go, despite the fact that it was very hard to decide what of his extensive liturgy to read. I went for the Third Reich, because it was a novel that was published posthumously and was undiscovered until he died. It tells the tale of a fantasy game champion that is on holiday in Spain with his girlfriend. As their holiday progresses they meet all manner of bizarre people who occupy their time in various stages of drunkenness, disorderliness and debauchery. Meanwhile the main character continues to play his board game which takes on a life of its own as the lives of those around his unfurl. It ends up being dramatic, strange, yet very compelling and doesn’t cease to retain your interest. It’s also interesting because of how South America looked after Nazis after WWII and one thinks that this is Bolano’s attempt to understand why, who was involved and how they became part of everyday society – fascinating.
Jorge Luis Borges – Ficciones
OK I must admit to finding Borges difficult and slightly impregnable. Ficciones is meant to be a classic and one of the key books of his collection and one that set the scene for his many future books and the influence he had on South American literature which has been written about extensively. There is a great deal to this collection of short tales and whimsical dreams that are to be admired, but I found some of it difficult to navigate. Like Joyce on crack some of the tales make you feel uncomfortable and some make you float around like you are dreaming in some kind of labyrinth. Perhaps I need to read more Borges to truly understand his influence…
Stefan Zweig – Chess
I adore Zweig. His book ‘Beware the Pity’ is one the best I have ever read. It is a brilliant tale that is psychologically difficult and complex and makes you feel uncomfortable but always wanting to know more and more. The pace and tone of his books are always quick, and they make you feel as if you are actually there involving yourself in the book, its characters and scenes. Chess is a short book that’s about a chess champion who is travelling on a boat to Rio and gets involved in a chess match with an amateur on board who has had some psychological issues in the past with the game. Like many of Zweig’s characters they are wonderfully depicted and you actually feel that you are watching the games yourself as they progress. A great break from the sometimes heavy South American literature.
Forgotten Continent: The Battle for Latin America’s Soul – Michael Reid
Question is what is Latin America’s soul? This book reads like an Economist essay, which I suppose makes sense as the author is himself a journalist for the Economist and someone who has specialised in Latin America for most of his career. His main argument, if I understood correctly, is that the states that make up the Spanish and Portuguese-speaking countries of Central and South America have suffered from a combination of popular politics, dictatorships and corruption that have made them unable to build on their advantages as nations, economically and culturally and their status internationally. It demonstrates, perhaps most pertinently that the people of Latin America have been at times duped by popular politicians who have led battles for the hearts and minds of the majority, but for the benefit of the minority. This is so apparent as one travels through this amazing continent which we will have only brushed lightly. The gaps between rich and poor are incredibly obvious and countries like Argentina for example are prime examples of where politics has destroyed the ability of a nation to stay prosperous. As a microcosm of perhaps what is happening politically and economically across the world, this is a fascinating insight into why and how regimes and built and then destroyed.
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