07 September 2015

Around The World In 80 Books | Update #1

It's been about a month since I started the Around the World in 80 Books challenge, so I thought it was a time for an update on what I've been reading and how many countries I've ticked off the list. If you're not familiar with the challenge, the purpose is to do a little armchair travel and read 80 books, each one set in a different country. You can read more about it here.

So far I've traveled to five countries from my armchair - China, Cuba, Ghana, Iceland and North Korea. I've read some books where I've traveled to other planets, but they don't count. I'm by no means a literary critic, but I've made notes of some of the things I found interesting in each book below. Let me know if you've read any of them - would love to know what you thought.

WHEN RED IS BLACK by Qiu Xiaolong | China

This is a fun little murder mystery set in present day Shanghai. Inspector Chen and Detective Yu investigate the death of a novelist who wrote a book about the Cultural Revolution which was banned by the Party. I enjoyed getting some insights into what contemporary China is like, especially the tension between the old communist system and the advance of capitalism.

While I'm not generally big on poetry, I did find the sprinkling of poetry verses interesting (in addition to solving crimes, Inspector Chen is also a poet).
"The water flows, flowers fall, and the spring fades. It's a changed world."

But far more interesting than dead bodies and old poets was the description of food on practically every page. This is the type of book that you really need plenty of snacks for because reading about all the delicious dishes will make you famished. Like soup balls.
"They looked dainty as quail eggs, almost transparent, the minced pork stuffing with minced crab meat, combining the flavors of land and river. The soup burst out at the touch of his lips, hot and delicious."

You can find out more about When Red is Black on Goodreads.

THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA by Ernest Hemingway | Cuba

Honesty, I can't believe I've never read this classic book before. It's probably required reading for most American high school students, but somehow I've never picked it up. Hemingway won the Nobel Prize in 1954 for this book so I had high expectations, which, fortunately, the book lived up to. There's nothing worse than sitting down to read a book which has been highly recommended, only to be disappointed. You start to wonder if there's something wrong with you - after all, everyone else raved about the book.

This is one of those books where the title sums it up pretty well - it's about an old Cuban man in search of a fish in the sea. Having recently crossed the Gulf Stream to the Bahamas, what I found fascinating was the description of the skiff Santiago took out into this stretch of water.
"The sail was patched with flour sacks, and, furled, it looked like the flag of permanent defeat." 

The other big thing that stuck with me was the description of sharks. I'm not really a big fan of sharks - they terrify me.
"Inside the closed double lip of his jaws all of his eight rows of teeth were slanted inwards...They were nearly as long as the fingers of the old man and they had razor-sharp cutting edges on both sides. This was a fish built to feed on all the fishes of the sea."

You can find out more about The Old Man and the Sea on Goodreads.

WIFE OF THE GODS by Kwei Quartey | Ghana

Like When Red is Black, this was another fun murder mystery set in Ghana. Detective Darko Dawson investigates the murder of a woman in a village where his mother disappeared from years earlier. The book gives some insights into aspects of Ghanaian society such as practice of marrying girls to a priest to atone for the sins of their families (the wives of the gods) and the tension between Western and traditional medicine.

While there are many differences between life in Ghana and life in Florida, there are some similarities - like dealing with fire ants. I hate fire ants.

"He passed a mango tree laden with ripe, rosy fruit and badly wanted to climb up and pick a few...the only problem was that the fire ants, just as fond of mango trees, made ingenious nests out of clusters of leaves. If they were disturbed, these vicious little creatures the color of fire launched an attack with bites that felt like a thousand red-hot needles."

You can find out more about Wife of the Gods on Goodreads.

ON THE COLD COASTS by Vilborg Davidsdottir | Iceland

I didn't like this book. There, I've said it. I have to say, I feel bad saying I didn't like this book. You know the rule - if you don't have something nice to say, don't say anything at all. After all authors are human beings who put their hearts and souls into their writing. I'm sure their feelings get hurt just like the rest of us.

Even though I couldn't really get interested in the main characters and kept hoping they'd get killed off and replaced with new ones, I did find the description of 15th century Iceland interesting. The big takeaway - it's cold. But, I guess that's isn't a stunning revelation.

You can find out more about On the Cold Coasts on Goodreads.

JIA by Hyejin Kim | North Korea

North Korea is one of those mysterious places I don't know too much about, which is just how they like it. I read in the news about the nutter-butter that runs the show  who likes to ratchet up the tension with South Korea from time to time and I've seen Vice's Guide to North Korea, so I know how bizarre the place can be, but that's about the extent of my knowledge. As a result, I was really looking forward to reading a book set in North Korea.
Jia tells the story of an orphaned girl who leaves her politically marked family, hides her background and starts a new life. She ends up being selected by the State to be a dancer which gives her security, food, housing etc. It was fascinating to read what a dancer's life is like in North Korea.

"I was finally selected as one of the eleven dancers for one of the festival's main dancing performances, entitled 'Unity'. It supported the festival's theme, 'For Anti-Imperialist Solidarity, Peace and Friendship.' Teacher Song wanted to express the goals of the festival through our dance."

Eventually, Jia flees to a Korean enclave in China where she faces struggles and challenges as an illegal immigrant with no money or resources. Fortunately, she ends up being luckier than most. I don't think Jia is ever going to win any awards based upon the writing (it's clumsy and almost seems like a poor translation into English), but there aren't many books which give an insight into modern North Korea. Because of that, I thought it was well worth reading.

You can find out more about Jia on Goodreads.

Looking for Something to Read?

If you're looking for a new book to read, here are some suggestions folks have shared on Facebook, email and the blog. Where possible, I've put links to each book/author on Goodreads so that you can check them out. Keep the suggestions coming!

Here's What's Next on My Reading List

In an effort to save pennies, I'm trying to pick books that I either find in free book exchanges or which I already have in my Kindle library. I'll also see if my mom can check out a few books from her library for me to read when I visit her in Portland later this month. Here are some of books I've got in the queue to read next.

If you're participating in the challenge too, I'd love to hear what you've been reading. Even if you're not doing the challenge, let us know what books you've been enjoying lately.

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  1. What a great post on reading from around the world. This rocks.

    Have a fabulous day. ☺

  2. How about a book on sailing to Antarctica? Berserk by David Mercy in a 27ft Vega. Not the best written book in the world, but interesting never the less. Or Sailing Alone Around The World. The classic by Joshua Slocum.

    1. Thanks Richard - great suggestions. I've also passed them onto someone on FB who was looking for sailing book ideas.

  3. Ahab's Wife (USA)
    Smilla's Sense of Snow (Denmark/Greenland)
    Dog's of Riga (Sweden/Latvia)
    Let's Not Go to the Dogs Tonight (Zimbabwe) Really, really good.

    ~Lynn from Tales From the Mutiny ;)

  4. Bury Me Standing and The Prague Cemetery (Eastern Europe and Paris)
    The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition (Antarctic) - Caroline Alexander. Better than most in that it includes information on all members of the expedition. (Recommend)
    Beijing Coma (China) - Ma Jian. A fiction story about the student movement that lead up to and included the Tiananmen Square protest and government reprisal. (Interesting and good)
    The Holy Grail: Imagination and Belief (say Britain for King Author legend) - Richard Barber. Nonfiction that reads more like a long dissertation paper than a consumer book. (Only for those topic specific)

    I am not a Hemmingway fan but "The Old Man and the Sea" is one of my favorite books. I also really like the Spenser Tracy movie version of the book (although it does look a little dated).

    Ordered JIA and Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight. Thanks for the recommendations Salty and Lynn.

    1. Thanks for some more awesome suggestions! I've never seen the film version of the Old Man and the Sea but would like to very much. I'm a big fan of old movies and an even bigger fan of Spenser Tracy.

    2. My wife and I are also big movie fans (the older the better seems to be the case as we age). My favorite Tracy movie is his last "Guess whose coming to dinner." With three great leads the movie is an acting dream.
      Favorite Hepburn movie "Bringing up Baby" with Cary Grant
      Favorite Poitier movie - "Lilies of the field" sentimental favorite "To sir, with love"

    3. All great movies :-) I really like Tracy and Hepburn movies - love their dynamic together. I think Adam's Rib is my favorite one with the two of them in it.


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