Monday, 25 August 2014

Home again.

And that's my last book on the original list I made for my Around the World trip. I read 54 books, well 51 read cover to cover and abandoned 3. I visited 53 countries around every continent, besides Antarctica. According to my little map on my list page, I have visited 26% of the countries in the world. Kind of throws it into perspective really when you realise that you have only visited a quarter of the countries, let alone scratched the surface of all the different cultures in the world.

Some of these books I have loved with every part of me, and suffered huge book hangovers after finishing. Others have been thrown across the room in disgust. One has even been turned into Christmas decorations as I decided it didn't deserve to be a book anymore. I have worked in a hospital in Ethiopia, visited another planet where the dominant culture is Caribbean, gone whale hunting in 1920s in the Faroe Islands, lived with an exile in Iceland in 1635, got involved in the most insane hockey game I have ever heard of with a family of Maoris, and solved murders in medieval Italy, 1970s Solomon Islands and modern day Denmark and Greenland, just to name a few of my adventures. I have also learnt I am not very tolerant of self-indulgent, old men who think they are incredibly smart or attractive or both, no matter what culture they come from. Particularly when they are neither.

Was it all worthwhile? Overwhelmingly yes. I do believe this is something that everyone should do. Maybe not 52 books at one go (who am I kidding, I got side tracked all over the place, including with other around the world books not on this list. That's why it's taken me 2.5years). Maybe in chunks of 5 or as you feel like it or one every few months. But we need to challenge ourselves to expose ourselves to different ways of telling stories and different styles and genres. But also it's a wonderful way of learning about different cultures, religions, political systems, even languages. And as literature helps you empathise and understand, I think this would do wonders for helping us to understand and empathise with other cultures in the real world.

Australia particularly, as much as we say we are a multicultural society, we are very sheltered in our exposure to other cultures that aren't within our own society and our own constructs.We should be encouraging everyone to read books from outside our own Anglo way of viewing things (including wanting nice, tight, wrapped up endings. Apparently that doesn't happen much in other cultures' writings), and to blow our minds a little. The world is so huge, and the least we can do is explore it from our armchair. I'll definitely be continuing my travels, so come join me.

From the Land of Green Ghosts - #53

Image sourced from here
Growing up, I knew of the country Burma. I knew of Aung San Suu Kyi and that it was terrible she was locked up in her house. I knew Burma was a dictatorship, and depending who you talked to, the word "communist" was thrown around now and then. And... that's about it.

So after my fail of a read for Burma earlier in the tour, I really wanted to make sure I read a book that taught me something about the country. So when someone in our Around the World group suggested a book written by a member of the Padaung tribe, widely known as the tribe where some women have brass rings lengthening their necks, I had to read it.

What we get is a beautiful, slightly poetical, incredibly South East Asian account of Pascal's life. We start with his life in the tribal hills with the Padaung, looking at the beautiful mix of missionary Catholicism with animist, Buddhist and tribal beliefs. Then his transition to seminary school in the city, to University student in Mandalay. You get a wonderful insight of the incredibly remote village boy changing to a city dweller.

This is where the story starts to change a bit from the usual coming of age story we are used to. While in university in the 1980s, Pascal is involved in the student uprising and demonstrations against the dictatorship. In the first third of the book, we had been given insights what it was like living under the regime, their propaganda and their whims and how this affected the Burmese. In the 80s, some students and monks protested against the regime and some people were shot. Then more protested, and more were shot, and so on and so forth. Then we have Aung San Suu Kyi enter on this wave of unrest and talk about democracy, and provided a united front to the people.

Pascal takes a while to come around to the movement and cause, but ends up being pursued by the regime. He ends up as a fugitive in the jungle, with other rebels who have been fighting the government for years with different causes, living on the Thai border. Eventually, after all of this, he gets rescued by a Don of English from a Cambridge college whom he met briefly in Mandalay before the trouble, and granted permission to travel to the UK and study English at Cambridge.

It's a book of contrasts in a way. Tribal verses city. Fugitive verses complying citizen. Seminary student verses other ways of life. Burmese verses UK. I must say it's the last contrast that does make me feel a bit ill. He talks about the way of living after he is rescued and it makes me sick with the extravagance compared to the poverty not only in the next country, but within Thailand. Having been there in the last year or so, it's apparent how much we have compared to every day Thais, let alone people who's entire country and economic status has be completely destroyed and devalued in the nation next door.

But this astonishment and even understandable bitterness is not displayed at all, if it is there, even when he talks about times of despair and depression. The book has this air of gratitude about it. Gratitude for being alive at all. For surviving childhood. For getting a chance at education. For being rescued. For having a chance a handful of his fellow countrymen have ever been offered in a foreign country. And I think that is the takeaway from this book. You should read it and understand the story of this country we all know little about, and the diverse cultures and traditions within it. Read it and be grateful that you are in a place where you can read these stories, that you are healthy, have means and education, and overall are safe. We are so very lucky for that.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Seven Houses - #52

Image sourced from here
You know when you find a book with a really interesting premise. One that makes you think, if this works it could be great, but if not... Yeah... This book is the example of it not working.

This book is a family saga over roughly 100 years in Turkey. It follows the grandmother, through to the granddaughter, but looking at everyone in between and beyond. What it tries to do is to tell the story through the eyes of the houses. Which would be interesting, if it did it. Or was consistent. It was neither. It would be thrown in sometimes at the beginning of the chapter if it was remembered. Otherwise it carried on as an omnipotent narrator, but threw the building card in now and then. And then ignored it completely and discussed things there was no fricking way a building a couple of kilometres back could observe. It was haphazard, sloppy and badly executed.

Also, as I am pedant and such. There were 5 houses. Not seven. We went back to two.

Maybe, if the characters were interesting it would be forgivable that you forgot the premise you named your book after. Beauty Queens are not interesting to me though. Sorry. I maybe a failure to my gender, but primping and preening to be beautiful is fucking boring and a waste of my time in real life, let alone reading it for a while. Even if it is one small part of the story, boring, snoring, doring...

Also, maybe I had a really sheltered childhood. I mean, I had brothers, and boys on the street I played with every day, but we never had the need to show each other our bits every five seconds. I am sure we did and went, well that's odd, and moved on. What is with the overt sexualisation of children in every second book I read? I understand that teenagehood is a western construct. I understand there is a thin line between kids and adults in many cultures. I understand that a lot of kids in many cultures around the world live in the same room as their parents sex life.

But what is the need for any book not written in a western or Anglo background for sexualising children in the first few pages? Is it to shock me into another culture? Coz cheers, got that, not completely fucking stupid. Is it something I was incredibly sheltered from? Was everyone else as children humping anything that walked along? If so, I stand corrected. Or was she trying to make a point about a repressed sexual society? I don't know, but it grated me (obviously) whatever she was planning. And this is not about the obvious child sexual abuse case. This annoyed me before that story, at least that was explainable and understandable.

As a family saga, it wasn't horrible. It interested me a little in what was going on, and the family at large. I assume it gave me some insight into Turkish society, or probably more accurately, a Turkish diaspora's or immigrant to another country's opinion of Turkey. Overall a big Meh from me. It wasn't terrible, but if it wasn't for the challenge I read it for, I wouldn't have finished it.