A collection of travel and other books

Over the past year one of our main hobbies while travelling was reading.  We’ve picked up a number of books throughout our trip, some about the countries we’ve visited, some historical, some because of recommendations from other travellers and others that have been highly critically acclaimed.  This is a list (in alphabetical order by author) and short synopsis of the books we’ve read from the first plane we took to Mumbai to now.

Travel and other books we have yet to read

White Tiger by Aravind Adiga:

This book is an excellent companion for anyone visiting India and offers a taste of it for those who haven’t been.  Adiga explores the darker side of Indian culture and particularly it’s tendency to trap children into the same job and lifestyle of their parents with things like caste, marriage, family and community pressure.  The protagonist, an Indian male with big dreams, tries to break free of these prevailing cultural influences and eventually succeeds, but at a great personal cost.  Full of dark humour and witty criticism, this book offers a real insight into the difficulties faced by young people in India today.

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood:

The story of two sisters and their secrets set in 20th century Canada.  An excellent novel dealing with a range of social and societal issues of the past century written in Atwoods’ beautiful and remarkably readable style.

Life and death in Shanghai by Nien Cheng:

This is an autobiographical story of a woman in China during Mao’s communist takeover and her seven year imprisonment for a being part of the capitalist class.  Written in crisp, direct prose this novel is engaging and extremely illuminating about the internal workings of a government that still whitewashes its history and tries to maintain an iron hold on information it doesn’t want leaking through to the international community.  Nien Cheng keeps subjectivity mostly out of her writing and lets the facts of her powerful story speak for themselves.  This book was one of my personal favourites.

King Rat by James Clavell:

Set in Changi, a Malaysian POW camp, this novel brings the reader into the everyday life of prisoners of war.  With his usual talented storytelling, Clavell looks at the underground economy of the camps and, making things like dengue and dysentery into everyday occurrences, it isn’t until the end of the novel that the reader realizes the full horror of the strange world inhabited by these prisoners.  This novel is a fascinating look at not only the lives of the POW’s but Clavell also dedicates chapters to their wives, love encounters from before the war and a view of what was happening in various parts of the world during this time.

Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee:

This absolutely depressing novel is about the personal depravity of the main character, the nature of men and the many racial and sociological difficulties of present day South Africa.  After losing his job because of sleeping with a student and refusing to apologize in any sincere way, the main character David Lurie leaves the city to join his daughter in the country; hoping to re-harmonize his life.  He and his daughter then become victims of a tragic event prompted by the racial tensions of a post-apartheid, divided country.  The novel offers a bleak look at a country in transition and highlights the numerous political and racial problems faced by South Africans today.

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad:

Moving past the cultural limitations of its time, this book has become a classic for its commentary on the colonialism in Africa in the late 1800’s.  Expressed in metaphors of light and dark, Conrad has written a fiction based on his exploratory trip to the Congo in the 1890’s.  He speaks about the missionaries and entrepreneurs he meets and how the colonization and ‘civilization’ missions in Africa had a darkness at their core which enslaved and abused the land and the natives across Africa.  This commentary is quite remarkable considering the audience of the time would have been wealthy, white, pro-colonialist English men.

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe:

The original tale of being shipwrecked on an island, Daniel Defoe’s story has been copied and quoted by innumerable authors over the years.  This was a fun and engaging novel to read although the number of times the main character went on about his “deliverance” from this or that and other religious references did get a little tedious by the end.

The Beach by Alex Garland:

This novel is about backpackers in Thailand searching to escape the “tourists” who have ruined the country and find a place of untouched beauty.  Although some of the comments about the expansion of tourism in south-east Asia are pertinent, the protagonist in the story is downright unlikable and the book, even now, is dated because of excessive references to video games and popular culture of the late ’80s and early ’90s.  Although this novel has been likened to Lord of the Flies and Heart of Darkness I personally find such references offensive to the craft of those authors, as I witnessed none of that kind of literary mastery in Alex Garland’s work.

A Quiet American by Graham Greene:

Set in Vietnam during the first Indo-China war, this is the story of the interactions between cynical British journalist and a young American correspondent.  Foreshadowing US involvement in Vietnam, this novel is a criticism of American ideas, particularly in relation to war and foreign policy.  Greene was placed under US surveillance after publishing this novel right up until his death in 1991 and the novel was condemned in the States as anti-American.

Old Path White Cloud by Thich Nhat Hanh:

This is the story of the Buddha written by a Vietnamese monk in simple form for easy translation.  Thich Nhat Hanh has eliminated the myths and miracles often associated with the story of the Buddha’s enlightenment and tried to write only the known and recorded facts about his life.  The book outlines the fundamental ideas of Buddhism, as shown through the teachings of the Buddha, and is a must read for anyone interested in learning more about the origins of Buddhism and its core philosophies untainted by religious associations or rituals.

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse:

A book about self discovery and the spiritual journey of a man during the time of the Buddha.

A Brave New World by Aldous Huxley:

Huxley creates a futuristic world in which babies are grown in bottles, old age has been eradicated and people are bred both physically and mentally with science and sleep-learning to enjoy their caste and the work they have to do.  Everyone is promiscuous and always happy thanks to the many sports and games they can play in their free time.  For any malcontents there is always soma, a drug invented to instill a state of bliss without any negative after effects or, failing that, an isolated island where they can be sent so as not to upset the happiness of everyone else in the society.  Although this utopian novel starts off with a lot of cynicism and aggressive criticism, it ends with a great deal of ambiguity.  Huxley doesn’t seem to know whether he means the book to be a warning, a prediction or a blue-print for the future.

On the Road by Jack Kerouac:

New York, mad man, road trip, hitchhiking, gone gal, dumb blonde, whiskey, hobos, Denver, hitchhiking, whiskey, no money, Frisco, smoking that tea, smoking the tea, girls, beer, whiskey, whiskey, beer, New York, dumb blonde, whiskey, Frisco, no money, hitchhiking, hobos, hitchhiking, whiskey, New York, Denver, New York, L.A., Frisco, Oklahoma, funny Okies, Frisco, New York, Denver, Frisco, Mexico?

That’s about all I got from that book.

The Year of Living Dangerously by Christopher Koch:

Set in Indonesia during the overthrow of president Sukarno, this book follows the lives of a group of foreign correspondents in Jakarta.  Through the eyes of these journalists, Koch has readers witness the events pivotal in shaping the modern history of Indonesia.

Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner:

Much more interesting and intelligent than the name would suggest, this novel is written by the slightly unorthodox economist Steven D. Levitt and author Stephen J. Dubner.  It explores Levitt’s statistical findings and comes to some very surprising conclusions.  Although occasionally criticized for wandering into other fields such as sociology and criminology, Levitt does bring up some interesting questions and insights into various fringe communities.

Under the Net by Iris Murdoc:

A comical tale about a young writer in London and his follies as he tries to contact a past lady-love and his old philosopher friend.

A Bend in the River by V. S. Naipaul:

Set in eastern Africa this is the tale of an Indian entrepreneur who strikes out for himself to set up shop further inland.  The village where he sets up at the bend in the river begins as a ghost town before beginning on a roller coaster of prosperity, tragedy, hope and defeat.  This novel provides an interesting image of a place caught between the modern world and its own tenacious past and traditions, however I did feel this book had strong racist overtones and that the author’s biases and pro-colonialist views were much too present in the writing.

The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh:

This novel offers an extremely rare insight into the lives of the Vietnamese soldiers during the Vietnam war.  Written with lyrical poetry and without rancor, this book completely humanizes a people that have long been demonized or simply ignored.  Where the horrors of the American side of the war have been extensively documented in fact and fiction, this is an absolute must read for those who experienced the Vietnam war either first hand or who were living in the States at the time.  This book is more a meditation on the sorrows of war than a an attack on either the US government or soldiers and encompasses all those involved in its grief and its humanity.

My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk:

Written in post-modern style, this novel is a murder mystery set in 15th century Istanbul.  The plot follows a group of miniaturist painters, one of who is murdered in the first chapter.  Each chapter is narrated by a different character including unusual voices such as the copse, a gold coin, a horse, Satan and a tree.  This form of narration gives a fascinating insight into the philosophical and artistic history of 16th century Turkey.

Catfish and Mandala by Andrew X Pham:

This autobiographical novel is about the experiences of the American-Vietnamese author when he returns to Vietnam as an adult to cross the country by bicycle and comes face to face with a part of himself that he has trouble recognizing.  Having left south Vietnam after the war, Andrew Pham’s family settled in California and began the slow process of trying to integrate with a completely different, and occasionally hostile, culture.  They encountered racism and other difficulties including Pham’s desire to be a writer which conflicted with his father’s idea of a successful career.  Pham’s sister committed suicide, which was a catalyst for him to embark on a trip to Vietnam and a journey of self-discovery.  In Vietnam he encountered a reverse racism against Viet-Kieu (foreign Vietnamese) and was accused of ‘running away’ to America by unhappy Vietnamese who had had to deal with the fallout of the Vietnam war.  By the end of the novel the author just seems more confused because of not having been able to connect with the Vietnamese part of himself in the way he had hoped.  Although not the best novel we’ve read on this trip, if does offer an interesting insight into the issues faced by first generation immigrants and the delicate balance they struggle to maintain between the culture they live in and the culture that lives in their homes.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig:

This novel skillfully ties philosophical ideas to real world concepts like motorcycles, relationships and travel.  An interesting accompaniment to an intro to philosophy course, the main focus of this book is a meditation on the meaning of quality; how we define what is “good”.  By using a 17-day motorcycle trip as the thread of the story and a metaphor for the philosophical difficulties the narrator encountered in his life, the author weaves metaphysical and logical lessons into the landscape of the United States.  A very readable philosophy book.

The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand:

In this novel about individualism vs collectivism Ayn Rand creates characters who are pure ideology and pits them against each other and against the society they live in.  Her protagonist Howard Roark is an architect who prefers to starve and struggle in obscurity before compromising for a second his artistic integrity.  Peter Keating is a man with no individual ideas, who can only find validation through the compliments of others; what he feels to be an achievement or a failure is completely dependent on the reactions and opinions of other people.  The book is a stage for Ayn Rand to showcase her philosophies on individualism and the value of independent thought.  Her idea that being selfish and catering solely to one’s own calling and opinions is the only way to be true to yourself and the world is expressed in this novel with elegance and ferocity.

Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts:

This page turner is a semi autobiographical account of the life of Gregory David Roberts and begins with his arrival in India after escaping from a maximum security prison in Australia.  He goes on to write with poetic elegance about his involvement with the underground mafia in Mumbai, his long term stay in an Indian slum and how he fought with the Mujahedin in Afghanistan.  Often sad, moving, insightful and exciting this book is a whirlwind of human experience beautifully articulated by a man with an unusual talent for expression.

Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger:

This novel about the loss of innocence, teenage alienation and rebellion has become a classic taught in many North American public schools.  Narrated in first person limited, this book follows the life of Holden Caulfield during the difficult period as he comes to the end of his secondary education.  From having been rejected and kicked out of so many boys’ schools, Holden has issues with self-image and is dealing with difficult identity questions.  The novel’s cohesive style carries it through the occasionally disjointed events and the language and voice chosen by the author are consistent throughout the book.  Although interesting to read, I felt this novel does speak more to men than women, especially younger men dealing with similar issues as the protagonist.

The Reader by Bernhard Schlink:

This novel deals with the complicated issue of how post war Germans should approach the Holocaust and the generation of people who witnessed or were involved in the atrocities.  This book is written in three parts.  In the first part Michael, the young protagonist becomes involved in a relationship with an older woman named Hanna.  They are together for some years until one day Hanna disappears after seeing him with a group of friends and Michael harbours a sense of guilt that her departure has something to do with him.  In the second part, Michael is in law school and sees his former lover again at a war crimes tribunal.  Hanna and 5 others are being charged with allowing 300 Jewish women to die inside a locked church that was bombed and caught fire on their watch.  Michael feels guilty and confused because of his previous relationship with Hanna and wonders how the person and lover he had known could allow something like this to happen.  Hanna is sentenced life in prison.  In part three Michael tentatively begins a form of contact with Hanna while she’s in prison; he reads novels aloud and sends the recorded tapes to her.  Though she replies with short letters, he never writes her back and maintains a distance even though he sends the tapes regularly.  Until the end of the novel Michael remains confused and conflict in his emotions and personal relationships.  This book has layers of beauty and meaning to be discovered and was one of my absolute favourites for the year.

Pol Pot: The History of a Nightmare by Philip Short:

Philip Short spent three years interviewing survivors from the time of the Khmer Rouge as well as Pol Pot’s contemporaries, political partners, friends and immediate family members.  He has compiled the definitive biography of the enigmatic figure who caused the death of a quarter of Cambodia’s population between 1975 and 1979.  This biography keeps bias to a minimum and tries to outline only the facts of Pol Pot’s life and the outrages of the Khmer Rouge as well as personal accounts from those interviewed.  Nat and I found this book to be extremely comprehensive and enlightening.  We learned a great deal about Cambodia, the political movements of the time and the twisting of communist ideology into something atrocious.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson:

This book is surprising in just how well the author managed to capture both the humour and the gravity of frivolous drug use during the 60s and 70s.  Following the exploits of a journalist and his “attorney” as they destroy one Vegas hotel room after the next on various drug binges, this book is extremely well written, colourfully evocative and entertaining all at once.   The novel also contains, at its core, a serious message about the mistaken vision that drug users of the time had; of a unity and meaning that never truly existed.

First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung:

This moving autobiography is a first-hand account of the terrifying reign of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.  Written by a survivor of the mass starvation and mass murders that occurred in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979, Loung Ung was only five years old at the beginning of the political takeover.  She writes in first. person present tense from the point of view of herself as a child, witnessing the events around her.  Loung lost half her family either to political killings, starvation or overwork and she herself was made to work in forced labour camps (termed “co-operative farms” by Pol Pot), trained briefly as a child soldier and pushed to the edge of starvation before escaping to Vietnam by boat and then late to America.

Gang Leader for a Day by Sudhir Venkatesh:

Sudhir Venkatesh is an American India sociology professor at the University of Columbia.  This book deals with the personal side of his master’s thesis during which he befriended J.T., a crack dealer and leader of the Black Kings, a notorious gang in one of the Chicago housing projects.  He spent several years documenting the underground economy of this housing project including the drug trade, sex trade and the interactions of criminal gangs.  Many of his findings were used by Steven D. Levitt in Freakonomics in the chapter: The economics of drug dealing, including the surprisingly low earnings and abject working conditions of crack cocaine dealers.