It's summer! The best time to curl up with a cold book and a deep read. Recently, for Displaced Nation, I asked some authors and writerly friends to give me some ideas about their favorite beach books. The result? Two posts full of novels, memoirs and other adventures!
Take a look here at Part I, featuring Alli Sinclair (author of Luna Tango and a former Novel Adventurer), Brittani Sonnenberg (Home Leave), Christine Kling (The Shipwreck Adventure series), Heidi Noroozy (translator and a former Novel Adventurer).
In Part II, we get recommendations from Mark Adams (author of Meet Me in Atlantis), Marianne C. Bohr (to-be-published Gap Year Girl), Shireen Jilla (The Art of Unpacking Your Life), me and my editor M.L. Awanohara.
This time for my Booklust, Wanderlust column at The Displaced Nation, I interview the lovely author Shireen Jilla about her second novel, The Art of Unpacking Your Life. Set in the Kalahari, this book puts together a group of friends who were once best friends in university. Many thanks to Shireen for agreeing to the interview!
Read it here.
This month on Displaced Nation I take a look at Allen Kurzweil's globe-trotting memoir about the search for his childhood bully as an adult. Part thriller, part comedy and all too-crazy-to-be-fiction, WHIPPING BOY was a pleasure to read. Check out the full review here.
Click on the image above to go to this month's book review on The Displaced Nation. "Passionate Nomad" by Jane Fletcher Geniesse looks at the early life and development of hotshot wartime Middle East expert and lifelong adventurer Dame Freya Stark and is a gripping read.
This week in my Booklust, Wanderlust column on The Displaced Nation, I review Peter Hessler's "Country Driving: A Chinese Road Trip."
I loved old China hand Peter Hessler's books on his early years studying and working in the Middle Kingdom. "River Town" and "Oracle Bones" are detailed memoirs that were both good reads and a good primer for what to expect when I moved to China. "Country Driving" continues in Hessler's tradition of showing the small details of everyday Chinese peoples' lives to illustrate some of the bigger challenges facing the Middle Kingdom.
Please stop by the site to take a look at my review and the dozens of other articles by The Displaced Nationers--international creatives.
Every year, sometime in January, I try to calculate how many books I read in the previous 12 months. Reading books (specifically novels, though I seem to be reading more nonfiction in the last two years) is a daily habit, and I usually have more than one book going at a time.
Last year and the year before, I was able to make a guess at how many books I read because I could count the titles on my Kindle. Unfortunately, over the Christmas holiday my Kindle decided that three years of constant use was a long enough life span and stopped working. I'm trialling reading Kindle books on my iPad instead, but will probably bite the bullet and get another dedicated ebook reader in the next couple of months. I read email and webpages on my iPad every day, but it's not really a comfortable platform to read a novel on, especially just before going to sleep: the screen's bright and it's too heavy to hold up for several chapters.
Anyway, this year, I've decided to look forward rather than back and plan a little as how many books I'm going to read this year. In January, I read 12 books--behind my usual pace for a month that included a holiday, and I'm blaming that on the indecision about reading on my iPad or not. I'm guessing most months I read between 5-15 books, with an annual total of around 100.
One of the books I did read this month was part of the Untreed Reads reading challenge, which I'm happy I stumbled upon before the deadline to enroll. Basically, they're giving me a book a month and asking me to then write an honest review of it when I've finished. I've been meaning to post more book reviews on Goodreads for some time now, so this seemed like a fun way to make that happen (and get free books, whee!). For January, I picked Lesley A. Diehl's A Deadly Draught, which looked like fun because it mixes mysteries and beer--two topics I enjoy. You can see my review on Goodreads here. As the year progresses, I'll mention the other titles I read in this blog under the "untreed reads challenge" tag.
What are your reading goals for 2014?
I will read a book just for its setting.
Now, sure, stories are usually at their heart about people. And, I love twisty plots, but I will go through a book that has less-than-sparkling characters or story to get a description of the world in which they move. I suppose this is one of the things that draws me to well-written fantasy books as well. World building is so important for me as a reader.
Perhaps one of the books that first made me sit up during the reading and think, 'hey, this is like traveling, only I'm not moving,' was M. M. Kaye's Death in Cyprus, about a young woman who is traveling on a boat to Cyprus when someone is murdered. I quickly became enthralled with M.M. Kaye's work, and still consider Trade Winds (set in Zanzibar, involves pirates...what else do you need?) to be one of my favorites.
So I was musing about this recently and decided I would actively search out some mysteries that take place in exotic locales.
With that in mind I was browsing through the bookstores in Hong Kong two months ago and came across a few titles I was happy to take home with me. The first I'd heard about before but never read, one of the Ladies' No. 1 Detective Agency series, by Alexander McCall Smith, about a conservative Botswanan lady who solves mysteries in a very proper manner. I've only read one of the books in the series, but am on the lookout for more of them. I've heard that it's also been made into a BBC/HBO show.
I enjoyed the book I read from the series, the Tears of the Giraffe, because it was so fresh and different from the mysteries I had been reading—usually set in England or the United States, full of police jargon and procedure. In contrast, this book examined the social mores of the middle class in a country I know nothing about. It was filled with descriptions of Africa that made me want to grab my camera and book the next flight out. The only thing I wondered, after devouring the too-thin book, was how accurate the characters in the book are. The detective is an African woman who hasn't been to university but who has decided to start her own business; the writer is a male Scottish physician. For me, the book worked, but I'd be interesting to hear if any African women had read the series and felt it rang true.
Another book that I picked up in Hong Kong and enjoyed through to the last page was the first volume of the Inspector Singh Investigates series by Shamini Flint. Called Inspector Singh Investigates: A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder . The book is about a Sikh detective who is a misfit in his own department in Singapore so he gets sent off around SE Asia on loan to other police outfits. This one took place in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, a city I've explored on numerous occasions, so it was fun for me to see how well the descriptions in the book matched my memories. The subsequent books take place in Bali, Singapore and Cambodia and I'm looking forward to picking them up for a browse, maybe when I visit Singapore next month.
Still on the shelf, I'm looking at reading a book called The Night of the Miraj (also called City of Veils), by Zoe Ferraris, about Saudi Arabia, and I think next time I go to Hong Kong I'll pick up a book I considered but ultimately didn't buy, Murder at the Ashram, by Kathleen McCaul, about India.
I have been looking for some contemporary mysteries about China, seeing that I live here, but haven't come across any. Suggestions are welcome!
_ I've been eliciting New Year's Resolutions from my ESL students here in China. Most of them, as I expected, take their allotted five minutes to write two sentences declaring wishful freedom from homework in 2012. Some of them wrote that they would finagle an iPad out of their parents, or that they'd beat their highest score on whatever computer game they favor. But two kids, out of the 200 or so I've asked so far, said that this year they want to read more books.
Students in China don't get a lot of leisure time for pleasure reading. They've got lots of books, sure, but the pressure to do well on the standardized tests here is phenomenal, and so most of the books they spend their days with are dry textbooks. And I don't mean to malign textbooks here. There exist wonderful, educational books that excite students' imaginations as well as teach them all that good stuff you need to do well in school. But, I haven't seen many of these texts here in China. At the moment, to teach 10- and 11-year-olds, I'm using a book first written in the 1960s for Greek college students. So, maybe even more than in the West, students learn to equate opening a book with turning off their brains and just memorizing.
I asked one of the two book-loving students how many books she'd read for fun in 2011. She shook her head, like she couldn't even count that high. Encouraged, I pressed her for a number. She bit her lip, rolled her eyes, did all those lovely avoidance techniques that 12-year-olds employ, and then hazarded a guess. “Maybe...10?”
I tried not to let my face fall. Less than one book a month for a girl who professes to really like reading? The poor thing! She told me she just doesn't have the time for much alone time, much book time. The other self-confessed reader admitted it to me just like that--a confession. This student is a boy, and the other boys sitting around him all guffawed when I read his resolution aloud. I went all enthusiastic on him, which I'm sure didn't help his cool factor, either. He hung his head and studied other students' graffiti on his desk. “Comic books,” he whispered, trying to salvage his rep. “I read comic books.” I tried to ignore the paperback Harry Potter translation sticking out of his book bag and moved on to the next student, but I started wondering about reading habits in China. It seems to be actively discouraged in schools.
I'd just read an article from the China Daily—perhaps not the best newspaper ever written—enthusing over the boom in reading in China. That's great, and I hope it's true. But for such a huge country, with supposedly such a high literacy rate, I was surprised at how few Chinese novels were featured in the article. Two of the 'Top Ten' books are by authors not based in China and four of them are non-fiction. If you can open it, I think this is the link .
My students didn't want to talk about it, and we had other things to cover that day, so I let it go, but I remain curious about what is offered to young adults in China for reading. Some of my students last year showed me some paranormal-romance type of books they were reading, translated from Japanese, and, I think, adapted from either an animated TV series or a comic book. The Harry Potter and Twilight series are marginally popular among my students, though because of the movies rather than for their own right as books, the kids tell me.
I tried not to compare my students' habits to my own childhood reading. I had the luxury of homeschooling and a fierce love of books that found me reading as a kid even while I brushed my teeth. Then, as now, I read a book a week, or more.
Since I got my Kindle (for Christmas last year, thanks again, parents!) I think I've upped even my own high average. I have an 'already read' collection on the e-reader where I stick fiction that I might want to have handy to browse again. I've got 37 titles in there, plus about 10 non-fiction books I finished in a different folder, plus I'm going to estimate another 10 to 25 titles that I deleted from the device afterward, either because I didn't like them enough to keep them or because I got them from a source other than Amazon and they were already backed up on my computer. So, in 2011 I probably read about 70 books. One of those books was Stephen King's On Writing, where he writes that he reads “everything I can get my hands on” and that much of what he reads influences his writing.
I was interested to see that Goodreads.com, a nice site for book-lovers, has a challenge page where people can set their reading goals up on the Internet and check books off as they finish reading them. When I found the page, there were already 57,502 people participating. Awesome!
My own New Year's Resolution is to create books, not necessarily to consume them. For me reading a book is still as automatic as brushing my teeth—although somewhere in my early teens learned that if you have a book you don't want to get spotty with toothpaste, you leave it out of the bathroom. I was thrilled that last year I met my goal of completing a novel, and this year I'm setting out to do the same.
Happy 2012 everyone. May you see through all your resolutions, literary or not.
Beth is an American freelance writer who has lived in Europe and Asia since 2003. She grew up on a sailboat and, though now a landlubber, still enjoys a peripatetic life. She writes articles and suspense about travel, expatriate living, and many other topics.