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book review: travels with herodotus

Ryszard Kapuscinski’s Travels With Herodotus was about one of my favourite parts of life: reading books in foreign places. When Kapuscinski was a young Polish journalist in the 1950s he expressed a desire to go abroad “perhaps to Czechoslovakia.” He was sent to India, with a parting gift of Herodtus’ Histories. So the book is about Herodotus as a role model for the traveller, and about the way it shaped Kapuscinski in his travels. He tells awesome stories about going to China during Mao’s 100 Flowers Campaign and being shut up in his room, and of being robbed in Cairo by a man he saw every day before and after the robbery. He’s talking about going to Congo and all through it he’s got his Herodotus.

A lot of the book is Kapuscinski retelling stories from the Histories and wondering about the tales. He takes a very open, anti-cynical approach to these 2500 year old stories. When Herodotus says he heard that the people up the Nile eat with their feet he takes it as a wondrous kind of thing. Not that Kapuscinski believes that’s what Africans did back in the day, but that he takes the story Herodotus presents seriously, as kind of a marvel of reporting (even if it is second or third hand).

It was a good combination of tales from different times. When I go to China in July, I’m going to bring some Herodotus with me.

book review: ghost train to the eastern star

In Ghost Train to the Eastern Star Paul Theroux retraces the overland journey from London through Asia he took back in the ’70s (and wrote about in the book The Great Railway Bazaar). It’s impressive. The route isn’t exactly the same (he could go through Afghanistan and Iran in the 70s but not Georgia or certain parts of Vietnam), and it’s not entirely overland (he flew into India and Japan and a couple of other short hops) but it’s still a great read.

Theroux travels differently than I have, in that he talks to people through out the trip. He’s also travelling with more money than I’ve ever done, but still. The conversations he has with people on trains and in cars throughout Asia are much more impressive than anything I’ve ever done. I mean, he chats with Prince Charles in Rajasthan, and can get invited to dinner with Orhan Pamuk, so yeah. It’s a different kind of thing.

But he also is embracing of the vagabond loafing voyeurishness that travel really is. It’s a way of life and he talks about it really well. Since this is a return journey for him, he’s comparing how it is in 2006 with how it was thirty years before. I appreciate that very much. It’s why I went to China when I did, so I’d have something to compare it with later. The bits in Turkmenistan were crazy good, talking about their (now dead) insane dictator. And he talks with sex workers in loads of different places.

Also, I had no idea this would happen, but near the end of the book he hangs out with Haruki Murakami and Pico Iyer in Japan (separately). Their recounted conversations were pretty great, and kind of make up for his unbearable snobbery on the issue of comics (all of which he dismisses as vacuous unchallenging pornographic pap).

It’s interesting reading about what he didn’t like about different places like Bangalore and China. They were the places where people are making crap-tonnes of money. Here’s what he said in one of his few paragraphs about China (he came into Kunming overland from Vietnam):

“China exists in its present form because the Chinese want money. Once, America was like that. Maybe this accounted for my desire to leave. Not revulsion, but the tedium and growing irritation of listening to people express their wish for money, that they’d do anything to make it. Who wants to hear people boasting about their greed and their promiscuity? I left for Japan, reveling in the thought that I was done with China – its factory-blighted landscape, its unbreathable air, its unbudging commissars, and its honking born-again capitalists. Ugly and soulless, China represented the horror of answered prayers, a peasant’s greedy dream of development. I was happy to leave.”

I ran a paraphrase of that by my friend who lives in China and she said “Oh dear, that makes me a little sad . . . because it’s true.” And that’s kind of what you want your travel books to do with their generalizations, right? Be at least a little bit true?

book review: moresukine

Moresukine is a comic about being a foreigner in Japan. Dirk Schwieger asked his webcomic readers to give him things to do/find out and he wrote short comics about them. They were interesting and insightful as far as I could tell. My main complaint is that it was far too short. Not enough stuff was done.

The appendices were actually pretty great because they were done by other webcomickers who got the same assignment from Schwieger: talk to a Japanese person and report on it. There was a diversity in ways that was interpreted and portrayed. Yeah. Decent little book, but kind of too quick a read.

book review: previous convictions

I guess A.A. Gill is a food writer in England, but all I’ve ever read of his stuff are his travel essays, which Previous Convictions is a collection of. He writes about hunting and America and some guy from a show called Top Gear who can’t stand hanging around gearheads. You’d think from the back of the book blurbs that he was insanely cantankerous and mean, but the essays come off as from an interested person writing without pulling too many punches. If I remember the other book of his that I read, A.A. Gill is Away, it had many more sweeping judgments on cultures. I remember Japan being fundamentally psychologically disturbed in that book.

The weirdest essay was about him taking his kids to Oman for Spring Break. The idea was to go somewhere an eight hour flight away (from London) but that was totally different. I guess the essay wasn’t that weird but the amount of money involved in living a life like that kind of amazed me.

book review: facing the bridge

I enjoy the length of Yoko Tawada’s stories. Like the other books of hers I’ve read, Facing the Bridge is a collection of three longish short stories, like 60 pages each. It’s an oddish length, which works because they’re oddish stories. The perfect kinds of things to sit down with on an afternoon and read.

In this book the three stories are about a Japanese exchange student in Germany and the first African to get a PhD in philosophy (back in the 1700s). The two parts to the story blurred into each other at the edges. There were no breaks between talking about Amo (the Ghanian) and Tamao (the Japanese student). The second story is about a Japanese tourist who goes to Vietnam. This was my favourite in the book because of her talking about what a tourist’s role is as she buys coconuts and goes to see temples. And there are these wonderful non sequiturs about fearing becoming pregnant. The last story is about translating and living in the Canary Islands. It was the weirdest of the three (though all were plenty odd).

There’s just so much in Tawada’s odd characters and their not entirely rational decisions they make that I find very attractive, in an intriguing kind of way.

on a dark evening, something non-halloweenish

From Look to Windward by Iain M. Banks:

Some travel forever in hope and are serially disappointed. Others, slightly less self-deceiving, come to accept that the process of travelling itself offers, if not fulfillment, then relief from the feeling that they should be fulfilled.

And Banks is British, so I’m not even cheating by adding that extra “l” in travelling.

book review: you shall know our velocity

Dave Eggers had been known to me before this book. Some kind of hipster author, and the McSweeney’s guy, I’d heard one of his TED talks. One of my hip reader friends loves him. (He also did the novelization of the Where The Wild Things Are movie, which irks me in many ways.) Anyway, I hadn’t read anything by him and didn’t have much of an opinion on his writing. And then I read You Shall Know Our Velocity.


I just devoured this fucker on the plane to China. It’s a book about travel, and money and the pointlessness of both. Which is all well and good, and then this thing happens about 2/3 of the way through that made me rethink the way the whole thing had been going and added so much to the rest. That gets added to the list of books I wish I’d written. And maybe someday could have. If my Barstow book had been about something instead of just describing shit, it might have been something like this.

I gave my copy to Holly when I arrived and this past week when I got back to town I bought another (used) copy.

reorganizing the library

I am now officially antsy about going to China. Even though I’ve got the whole of school-age summer yet to wait. It looks like I’ll be back from that trip before the 09 library reorganization happens, which may or may not be a good thing.

They’ve been sending out these Questions with Answers about the Reorganization (and by “they” I mean “some people in the business office”) that have been somewhat useless since they refuse to say anything that isn’t in bureaucratese. Yesterday though, Question #10 came out. It was a good question, asking what this reorganization meant in simple terms for those who hadn’t been through one before. As the questioner stated, all the emails to this point assume everyone knows what they’re talking about.

The answer to Question #10 was “Look at Libnet” (our library intranet). That’s it. I went to the page they listed and there wasn’t anything. I poked around (since I am a library employee and am capable of finding things on websites) and found a page they probably meant, since it had a section at the bottom labelled Reorganization. In that section was the email management sent to the library staff letting us all know this was happening. That’s it. The bullshit nature of that “answer” to Question #10 pissed me off so I wrote a Question of my own. It was snarky (but not rude) and included specific questions about specific issues that those of us who don’t know what the hell all the corporate jargon means might find enlightening. I have no idea if it’ll be answered but it made me happy to point out what a useless piece of crap they’d answered Question #10 with.

As it is right now there’s just rumour and half remembered bits of what the last reorganization was like. One big thing is that they’re eliminating 3.7 full time equivalents because of 311. Which the library has withdrawn from since it was ridiculously bad for anyone who wanted to use the library. Ever. So it’s been a long term cost-cutting thing that was going to happen pre-“these economic times.” I’m not worried about it right now (I may be when October rolls around if all I can get is 8 hours/week), but if you’re at one of the City’s libraries and your staff seem a little more frayed than usual, this could be why.

book review: sun after dark

Sun After Dark, the Pico Iyer book I’d read before thanks to James and Michelle Stabler-Havener, didn’t cause quite the same angst in me that Global Soul did. Primarily because this book was less about some idealized form of human and more about the places he’d been. There are also book reviews in this one wherein he talks about a writer’s disorientating effects and the relentless proof he tries to hold onto. And there are stories of Rapa Nui and Angkor Wat and Pol Pot, and these address some of the worries of the traveller being a colonial force (even if brown-skinned). The essay about Tibet makes sense, especially when coupled with the essay about hanging with the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala.

All in all I liked Sun After Dark much more than Global Soul. It felt less polemic and more story oriented. And it made me want to go to Bolivia without making me want to kill myself for not being there right the fuck now. So that’s a good thing. I guess.

book review: global soul + imagining canada

Last week I read two Pico Iyer books: Global Soul and Imagining Canada: An Outsider’s Hope for a Global Future (couldn’t find it on Amazon, since it was a CBC produced lecture I guess? Sorry if you wanted to buy it). They were similar, in fact the chapter on Toronto in Global Soul hit most of the same points as Imagining Canada did, but was directed more at non-Canadians. In any case I’m putting them together here.

The important thing I had to keep reminding myself of in these books were that they were almost 10 years old. I still think of time being around the turn of the millennium but things are different now and man is that ever more evident in non-fiction than in a novel. (Yes it’s obvious but I read way more novels than non-fiction so it’s almost a new thought to me.) The book and to a lesser extent the lecture were talking about a world before global terrorism became this huge concern, before regular people gave a shit (or pretended to give a shit or were annoyed at people telling them to give a shit) about climate change. Because of the last ten years it’s hard to take his paeans to the world traveller, at home nowhere but airports as anything more than a romantic daydream. And believe me this kind of romantic daydream hits me where I live. I don’t want to be here owning a condo and paying taxes to store my books; I want to be jet-setting, crashing here and there in anonymous strange places seeing new things with fresh eyes. But, it ain’t happening these days, not if you’ve got a conscience.

In one chapter of the book Iyer “lives” at LAX for a week. It’s hard to say exactly what that means since he doesn’t go into the details of his process, but he waxes poetic about these anonymous spaces being the site for partings and reunitings and all these huge moments in people’s lives. He doesn’t talk about the TSA at all. Or about how planes and the jetsetting lifestyle dumps carbon into the atmosphere. It’s presented as a romantic ideal with no consequences beyond not feeling at home anywhere, but isn’t that better? Isn’t that the way of the future?

I don’t know. I wish it was. I wish that could be my future. But as this millennium moves forward I feel like all of that isn’t going to happen, at least not for the non-superrich. I know he’s talking about people who need to travel for their livelihoods, not people like me who’re doing it on their own dime and should by all accounts be focusing on the local because that’s how the world is really going to change and be sustainable. I feel like I’m supposed to be finding everything I need within a bicycle ride of home, which is the opposite of what this book is saying.

There’s a lot of other good stuff in there too about immigrant communities and how moving beyond nationalism is how the future will look. And in some ways I can see it and I feel bad for being here saving money and having a place for my things. If I want to be a human of the future don’t I need to move past all of this?

And then I think about a tiny house and some land with a view and that’s all I want. That’s the kind of simple life that doesn’t exploit anybody else, right? I could do that with a proper supply of books. Sigh. I just feel like I’ve chosen everything wrongly; like if I’d stayed in China I’d be closer to the life I wanted, the life in this book. It feels really hard to be a Global Soul when you live in the middle of a continent without leaving.


the past

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