Red Dust: A Path Through China – Ma Jian

As in a few months I will be moving from Terrassa, Catalunya to Tianjin, China on the next step of my life journey. It was obviously time to start reading about China. I may not write a long post as I’m still in the process of applying for a visa and who knows what might happen if I say the wrong thing.

Ma Jian is a Chinese writer who now lives in Britain, and has taken British citizenship. This book is a fictionalised version of his journey through China in the 1980s. Having been denounced by his ex-wife, banned from seeing his daughter and been visited a few times by the police, Ma Jian heads out on a journey to discover China. Red Dust is a wonderful book, and his journey is epic. Ma Jian is robbed, arrested, and attacked by dogs. He has to drink his own urine when wandering in the desert, and has to cope with flea bites, frostbite and sunburn. This book is an interesting insight to China by someone who has experienced life both inside and outside the country, and definitely worth a read.

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The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy

This is one of those novels that I have wanted to read for years. Published 21 years ago, it was the winner of the Booker Prize in 1997, and has been adapted for both TV and film. I finally picked up a copy at my local second hand shop, Re-Read, which definitely deserves a plug. I love second hand books in good condition, and they are always in good condition there. The God of Small Things.jpg

The God of Small Things is the debut novel by Arundhati Roy, her second only came out last year, and it is a beautifully written account of life in India. Roy’s novel is a novel of tragedy, loss and forbidden love. All these things are discussed in various ways, and her writing really tugs on the heartstrings. The novel is emotional in many ways, but it is overwhelmingly sad.

The novel is an account of the lives of a pair of twins, Rahel and Estha, through two periods of their lives; partly as seven-year-old’s in 1969 and as thirty-one year old adults in 1993. They haven’t seen each other in the intermittent years, in which time Estha has not spoken. We learn why as the novel progresses, with little bits of information being slowly fed to us throughout the novel. Roy gives us small pieces of information that combine to create the full picture, a technique that is alluded to in the title, its the little things in life that may have the greatest effect on our lives.

I enjoyed this novel, the description is excellent, but the story is almost too sad. I would recommend reading this for the writing, but maybe at a time when you can deal emotionally with divorce, death and general unhappiness.

 

The Way to Paradise – Mario Vargas Llosa

I found this in the second-hand shop, and I’m glad I did. I assume it had been donated as Vargas Llosa isn’t much liked in some parts of Catalan society – having lived in Barcelona for many years he supports the Spanish government, but no Catalan will deny he is an excellent author. He is one of the foremost Latin American authors, and is renowned for both modernist and post-modernist writings. The Way to Paradise is one of his more recent novels, having been published in 2003, and it is extremely different to the other novel I have read by him, The Time of the Hero from forty years before. One thing I find intriguing about this novel straight away is the difference in the original title, El paraíso en la otro esquina which could, or should, be translated to The Paradise in the Other Corner, but the debate about translating novels could be continued throughout time.The Way to Paradise

The Way to Paradise follows two story-lines, both of which are biographical. The first follows the life Flora Tristan, a founder of the feminist movement, socialist writer and activist. Llosa’s novel follows her life as she travels around France trying to gain support for her organisation “The Workers ‘Union”. Using illness induced flashbacks and her memories, Llosa tells us about her formative years; her unhappy marriage, her children and her visits to Peru and Britain. Flora is shown throughout the novel as a brave and outspoken woman; her rivals paint her as a slut, seductress and adulterer as they try to undermine her attempts at creating her version of Paradise.

In the alternate chapters we read of the life of Paul Gauguin, despite being Tristan’s grandson they never met. These chapters are set in the period when Gauguin lived in French Polynesia, during his own search for Paradise. Again using memories, these during periods of drug use, we see how and why Gauguin is in this part of the world. Llosa must have researched this period of Gauguin’s life, and effectively imagines the thoughts and feelings of the famous painter, but Gauguin is portrayed in the novel as part lunatic and part tortured genius.

In all this novel is excellent, it was a really interesting insight into the lives of two influential figures. I particularly found it incredible that they both seemed to be searching for a paradise, that may not actually exist. Llosa is an excellent writer, and in this novel he shows why, writing anything biographical is challenging, but to make it entertaining is harder.

Moving Pictures – Terry Pratchett

Recently I visited the local second-hand bookshop, one of a Spanish chain called Re-Read, where you can buy 5 good quality books for 10€. Luckily here in Terrassa they have a fairly good English section and I was able to find 5 books that I wanted to read.

If you have never read any Terry Pratchett, you must! Pratchett is an author I file under ‘comfort-reading’, he is entertaining and you can easily get lost in his comic fantasy world. Discworld is his most famous creation; a magical disc-shaped world that balances on the back of 4 elephants which are riding a giant tortoise through space; the inhabitants of Discworld are humans, dwarfs, trolls, and many more creatures. The 41 Discworld novels you will find everything from magicians to priests, witches to assassins, engineers to policemen. Pratchett also incorporated aspects of various parts of our own world – the main city, Ankh-Morpork, is a composite of modern New York, 18th century London, ancient Rome, renaissance Florence and other famous cities. There are also various regions of Discworld with allusions to Australia (Fourecks), Scandanavia and the Himalayas (The Hub), China (The Agatean Empire), Western Europe (the Sto Plains), the Middle East (Klatch) and Central America (Howandaland). Using these excellent paMoving Picturesrodies Pratchett questions much of modern culture whilst also entertaining his readers.

Moving Pictures is quite clearly a send up of Hollywood, most of the action takes places in Holy Wood, a hill not far from Ankh-Morpork. When the Alchemists stop blowing themselves up, a regular occurrence in Ankh-Morpork, they invent moving pictures. Using this technology they start to make clicks (movies), and everyone in Discworld wants to be part of the new business. Our main characters are Victor Tagelbend, a dropout from the magicians Unseen University, Ginger, a girl from ‘a little town you’ve never heard of’, and the notorious salesman Cut-My-Own-Throat Dibbler – sound familiar? Pratchett takes the idea of the Hollywood dream and subverts it completely. These three set out to become stars, but with stardom comes responsibility. With his usual combination of fantasy, comedy and satire Pratchett produced another hilarious novel.

I think surreal is the best way to describe Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. Moving Pictures is just that, and this is why I love his writing. He is so entertaining yet he does make his readers think about the world they live in. If you have never read any Discworld novels, please do, and if you have and love them, recommend them to a friend.

The Undercover Economist – Tim Harford

I have been working in Catalunya as an English Language Assistant in a school for the past 6 months, obviously this involved transporting a number of books from my home in England to Terrassa. I recently finished this mini-library, but luckily I work with a couple of other English speakers; a South African (Lana) and a Pole from London (Weronika). Both of these colleagues do the same job as me, and both are avid readers! Having finished my last book I sent an SOS to our WhatsApp group; Weronika came to school with a selection of books for me to choose from, and that is the story of how I came to read this book. Economics is not a subject I would ordinarily consider reading about but, this caught my eye as something that my help me understand the world of economics. The Undercover Economist

I’m in no way an economist, I barely manage my own finances so I doubt it would be a good idea for me to have any influence on the world of finance, yet this book has given me an good outline of how economics work. Harford’s main aim for this book is to make economics accessible to everyone, he uses examples from everyday life to explain the finer points of economics. Whilst explaining why your morning cup of coffee costs the price it does he manages to be funny, engaging and accessible. One chapter may be about your coffee, or the supermarket you go to, but the next will be about China, or why some countries stay poor. Luckily the more meaty chapters are often sandwiched between two that bring you back to a beginners level of economics.

I do think that Harford has an agenda; he talks about the advantages of globalisation and of free-market economics, but he does not force it onto you. Harford merely expresses his thoughts on the subjects and presents what he thinks would be the advantage; one example being his response to the suggestion that an economist should work in a sweatshop. In a nutshell, Harford’s response is ‘Yes, a sweatshop is not a nice place to work, but what is the alternative – poverty’. He is a convincing writer in this respect, and he is in a better position to make these arguments than I am, after all it is his job to consider different aspects of globalisation and free-markets.

Whilst being a very easy book to understand this is entertaining, and I think that is the beauty of Harford’s writing. Harford does away with much of the economic jargon that may put people off from reading a normal economics book and replaces this with language that every person can understand. As he writes about quite important economic ideas he makes jokes, and always links the subject to a situation that most people would have an experience of, whether this is ordering a coffee, or buying a second hand car. I feel that everyone should read this book so they have a basic understanding of economics, and how economics is not just something that should be talked about by politicians, but is something that can effect our own lives.

The Penultimate Truth – Philip K Dick

You may have noticed by now that I really enjoy sci-fi, and Philip K Dick in particular! Yet again I have read, and loved, one of his novels. I’ll probably end up reading all of his novels by the end of my life. This novel is an excellent Philip K Dick novel, and it would be perfect as an introduction to his work. It includes a number of tropes that he uses in a number of novels.

The Penultimate Truth is one of the most interesting novels I have read recently, as it is the branch of sci-fi that is concerned with events in the future that may be possible. Dick sets the novel in a time when there has been a third World War, one fought with nuclear weapons, and rendering the surface of Earth as uninhabitable, or is it? In this novel there is an obvious fear of nuclear war; it was published in 1964 at the height of the Cold War, and throughout there are references to nuclear destruction and the fictional World War III was fought between two superpowers, West-Dem and Pac-Peop, very obviously based on the USA and Russia. The novel follows two story lines; one that takes place in underground bunkers, designed to protect humans from the war raging above, and the other is above ground, where the world is now being developed into a paradise for a few citizens. The Penultimate Truth

In many novels Dick invents machines that do work for humans; in The Penultimate Truth one character, Joseph Adams, is shown using a machine that helps him write speeches. Adams writes speeches that are broadcast to the underground ‘Tom-Mix’ bunkers to continue the lie that the war is ongoing. By inserting one idea or phrase the machine will create a whole sentence, however Adams is unhappy with the outcome. Meanwhile the bunkers are tasked with producing ‘leadies’, essentially robots, to fight the war. The reader soon learns that these robots are simply being used as slaves for the men living above ground. Another trope that is prevalent in Dick’s work is the unfinished story; although the novel ends with a conclusion, the story itself is unfinished, as the title suggest, there is still one more truth to come. The final trope is the alternate history. This novel contains one of the most interesting ideas, the idea that Britain was responsible for World War II and that Germany engineered its own downfall as they saw Soviet Russia as a greater threat to the world. This idea is intriguing, but also classic Philip K Dick; he makes the reader question everything they know to create these amazing science-fiction stories.

As a lover of Philip K Dick, I was of course going to enjoy The Penultimate Truth, but I genuinely believe this is one of my favourites by him. It is a fairly easy read, I finished it in about 3 days or about 2 hours of reading, yet it does make you think and is entertaining. As I said in the opening paragraph, this would be one of the books I would recommend to a Philip K Dick virgin, it has everything I enjoy about him.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Stories – Washington Irving

This collection of short stories was initially published as The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. and was one of the first literary works by an American author to be published or read in Europe. Despite being written by an American most of the short stories reflect on English life, only a few are specifically set in America.

Irving’s stories Washington Irvingare mostly lovely tales of rural English life, but he occasionally branches into gothic tales, which themselves mostly derive from German folk tales. Irving used the pseudonym ‘Geoffrey Crayon’, and most of the stories are written through the eyes of this character. This is the continuing charm of this collection, it often feels like you are reading the notes of a real person instead of a an author.

Washington Irving also used this book to present the stories of a Dutch historian who had disappeared in New York, Diedrich Knickerbocker. The name ‘Knickerbocker’ is now seen as a nickname for New Yorkers, and is even used by the cities NBA team. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle are both attributed to Knickerbocker, and are the two most famous of Irving’s stories. These two stories are very derivative of European ghost or horror stories, but with an American twist, they are also both fairly amusing for a 21st Century reader.

In this post I won’t go into more detail as I’m not a massive fan of short story collections. These are interesting but I’m not sure this collection is my favourite, some of the tales are actually fairly dull and of little interest.

 

A Grain of Wheat – Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

I have recently been very lax on my reading; it has taken me over a three weeks to finish this novel, and not because it was difficult to read, or boring, or any of the other reasons I normally take ages to read a book. A Grain of Wheat is actually a fantastic novel which, when I found time to read, I truly enjoyed. I read this novel as I once read an amazingly interesting article (that now I am unable to track down) that mentioned Thiong’o as a must-read author. Wa Thiong’o is a Kenyan writer who has served time as a political prisoner, after producing a controversial play during the time of Kenya’s authoritarian regime, wa Thiong’o has studied in the UK and lived in exile in the USA.

A Grain of WheatA Grain of Wheat is a novel set in the last days of British rule in Kenya, and the Mau Mau uprising. As ‘Uhuru’, Kenyan independence day, approaches a number of characters interact in a number of intertwining stories about the people of a single village. Most of the story revolves around the life of Mugo, who has been on hunger strike in a concentration camp, and has resisted the British in various ways, throughout the novel Mugo is seen as a hero of the village. The main plot of the novel concerns the betrayal of a resistance fighter, Kihika, to the British and the mystery surrounding who actually betrayed him. Kihika was hanged by the British and as revenge the resistance leaders wish to hang the traitor.

Meanwhile there is a subplot involving the Kihika’s sister, Mumbi. Her husband Gikonyo, the village carpenter, has been in prison for a number of years but returns to the village to take her back into his life. On his return he finds that she has had a child to the new British-appointed chief of the village, Karanja, who is later suspected by the villagers to be the traitor. Gikonyo and Mumbi are unable to reconnect due to her relationship with Karanja, and this is a key aspect of the humanity of this novel. Through these personal relationships he portrays human suffering, and human strength.

Wa Thiong’o’s novel is a novel which treats a significant period of time in a hugely human way. I feel the novel cannot be read without an understanding of the contemporary Kenyan history; it was published just four years after independence. The village wa Thiong’o presents to us is a microcosm of pre-independence Kenya; the betrayals rife during the final years of British rule and the factions within Kenya’s independence movement. We as readers eventually come to terms with the betrayals that have taken place as we understand that they are necessary for the survival of the characters. This novel is immensely powerful as both a historical novel, but also as a human novel; how we as humans cope with adversity and change.

Quesadillas – Juan Pablo Villalobos

This novel is the second by the Mexican author Juan Pablo Villalobos, who has been described as narco-literature author. This novel is similar in many ways to magical-realism whilst keeping the sense of the narco-literature with which Villalobos is associated with. Narco-literature is a fairly new Mexican literary phenomenon which attempts to portray the modern realities of Mexican life, however in Quesadillas Villalobos mixes this with some surreal imagery to create an incredibly intriguing tale of poverty. Quesadillas

Quesadillas is narrated by our teenage protagonist, Orestes, who, like all seven of his siblings, has been named by his father after a Greek personality. The novel tells a number of stories about the family, and covers many aspects of Mexican life. We embark on our journey with a fantastic description of his father, ‘a professional insulter’,  this then leads on quite swiftly to a the possibility of electoral fraud. This opening gambit is the chance for the narrator to discuss quesadilla rationing; the fillings of the quesadillas chances depending on their economic situation, and the overall economic situation of Mexico.

Orestes narrates a story that happened many years before, allowing himself to rant and rave about his own upbringing. When two of Orestes’ siblings disappear a sequence of believable yet increasingly intriguing situations occur. This novel is extremely funny, but does this comedy mask a something more sinister? I would surmise that it does. We can never be sure that the stories told are true; firstly as we cannot trust Orestes’ memory, and secondly as he is re-telling what a 13 year old child saw. I think throughout this novel the most important thing is circumstance.

Treasure Island – Robert Louis Stevenson

This novel is probably one of the most influential novels in British history. Treasure Island responsible for our modern view of piracy; X marks the spot, the talking parrot, one legged men, and much more. I have seen a film adaption, as well as the Muppets Treasure Island, and I think had the book read to me by my parents, but I have not read the book myself. It was the perfect book to read after the intensity of the previous book I read, its an easy read, yet entertaining and intriguing.

Treasure Island is split into six parts, most of which are narrated by the main protagonist, Jim Hawkins. It tells Jim’s story as he gets embroiled in a pirate plot. We meet Jim at his parents inn, somewhere in the South-West of England, an area renowned for its involvement with piracy. Jim’s father is seriously ill, and a mysterious man, known as the captain but named Billy Bones, takes a room at the inn; he starts paying Jim to keep an eye out for another man, a one-legged ‘seafaring man’. As the story develops Jim gets more involved with Bones and eventually learns some of his secrets. After his father dies Jim becomes more interested in Bones, however after receiving a visitor the captain has his second stroke and dies, but not before revealing all the secrets of his seaman’s chest.

Opening Bones’ chest results in further adventures for Jim; along with the doctor who cared for his father, Dr Livesey, and the district squire, Trelawny, Jim sets off to search for the captains treasure. In Bristol they recruit a crew to sail for the Caribbean, including a number of dodgy characters. They recruit a captain, Captain Smollett, who does not trust many of the crew, yet still agrees to sail with them anyway. The main concern for their captain is the ship’s cook, Long John Silver, he appears to be an honest man but is a name that I think most people will now associate with piracy. As their voyage progresses the honest men on board the ship start to discover things about their crew, most of which concerns them. Eventually they realise that most of the crew has heard that they are on a voyage to find the treasure of a deceased pirate named Captain Flint, the map for which was hidden in Bonestatic1.squarespace.coms’ chest. I will not give away too much of the plot so you can read this yourselves, but there are a number of twists and turns as the novel progresses.

Jim is certainly the hero of this novel, however each of the characters are well-rounded and have a purpose; the Doctor is the moral and rational person on the ship, Jim is definitely the risk-taking youth, Smollett is the most skeptical of others, and Silver is deceitful, cunning but strangely caring about Jim. These characters really make the story, without each of their individual characteristics Stevenson’s story would not be as exciting as it is.

Throughout the novel Stevenson introduces stereotypes of pirates, each of which has become the norm for modern views of 18th century pirates. I don’t think Pirates of the Caribbean, International Speak Like a Pirate Day, Black Sails, or many Halloween costumes would exist if not for this novel. Its influence is vast, and I think it deserves it as its a very enjoyable read. Treasure Island is a classic novel and it really deserves to be read by as many people as possible, it may well be the slightly scary novel that you read to your kids one day.