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!
- Bo from Sailing B&A - Ali and Nino by Kurban Said (Azerbaijan)
- Lynn - Jo Nesbo's books (Norway)
- Nathan from Moore Better World - North to the Night by Alvah Simon (Canada)
- Don - Bury Me Standing by Isabel Fonseca (about modern Gypsies in Bulgaria, Slovakia, Poland and the Czech Republic), The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco (France)
- Melissa from Little Cunning Plan - Troubled Sea by Jinx Schwartz (Mexico)
- David - Elephant Company by Vicki Croke (Burma/Myanmar), Bamboo Handshake (Democratic Republic of Congo), Hatred for Tulips by Richard Laurie (Netherlands), The Moses Expedition by Juan Gomez-Jurado (Jordan), Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway (Bosnia), Ambushed by Ian Stewart (Sierra Leone), Code Talker (Solomon Islands), Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts (India), Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden (North Korea)
- Maria from Sailing Mareda - Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese (Ethiopia), The Garden of Evening Mists by Twan Eng Tan (Malaysia), Independent People by Halldor Laxness (Iceland)
- My Mom - Harraga by Boualem Sansal (Algeria), In Cold Pursuit by Sarah Andrews (Antarctica), Burial Rites by Hannah Kent (Iceland)
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.
- The Covenant by James Michener (South Africa)
- The Seduction of Silence by Bem le Hunte (India)
- Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery (Canada)
- Galway Bay by Mary Pat Kelly (Ireland)
- The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (New Zealand)
- The Redbreast by Jo Nesbro (Norway)
- Ignorance by Milan Kundera (Czech Republic)
- The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana by Umberto Eco (Italy)
- Thunderball by Ian Fleming (The Bahamas)
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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