Run the equator: The Books and the Road

Friday, August 10, 2007

The Books and the Road

Before starting this trip I thought that once I wouldn't have a job and the many social engagements associated to urban life I would indeed have more time for that all-too-neglected activity which I love: reading. It wasn't meant to be this way; work and all its problems that take most of our time during the day have been replaced with other activities, equally time-consuming: moving from place to place, seeing things worth seeing, looking for hotel rooms, browsing for good deals at markets, sorting and uploading pictures, blogging and so on. Honestly, I haven't read more than I would have if I had stayed home.

Here's the list, and I'll be keeping it updated as I move from volume to volume across continents.

  • Mario Puzo - I folli muoiono (in Italian). I had this book for a while but never got to read it. I started it shortly before leaving as part of my lecture plan that every now and then includes books in all the secondary languages I know, just so I don't forget them. A passable story with not much substance or convincing drama, but easy to read, even translated in Italian. The book was a hardback monster in larger format, so I was more than happy to abandon it once finished at the Rio-Bec Dreams jungle lodge in Mexico. I was so sick of carrying it around that I didn't even want to keep it with me until I could trade it for something else...
  • Spanish in 10 minutes a day. Ok, you may not want to call this a real book but I read it from cover to cover, I even filled in the blanks. It's a very-very beginner level self-study Spanish course, and was a useful introduction to the language.
  • Richard I'Anson - Travel photography. A few basic notions of photography, didn't get very deep, but it had nice pictures and taught me enough about aperture, shutter speed, depth of field, exposure and framing to get me started.
  • P.J. Woodehouse - Very good, Jeeves. A spirited dose of British humor at its best, this book is about one of those Victorian gentlemen who seemed to go merrily through life doing... nothing, and about his talented "gentleman's personal gentleman" who could fix any problem and get his master out of trouble, no matter how embarrassing the situation.
  • Fred Vargas - Coule la Seine (in French). I found this very light-to-read and short policier on the boat that we were cruising with in the Galapagos. There was nothing else to read...
  • Don Gold - Nicht nur Tauben sterben im Park (in German). OK, so there was something else to read on the boat but it was really bad. A New-York cop-story piece of garbage (quite short, luckily) translated from English, which I would have never touched, had it been in its original language. But since it was in German, it was just part of "the plan" (see first item on this list) and reading it served a higher purpose. I didn't have a dictionary, but the two Germans we had on board were never very far.
  • Charles Berlitz - Spanish step by step. This is a step up from the beginner book and it was of invaluable help, since it contains all the Spanish grammar in 25 simple, concise lessons.
  • Elizabeth Kostova - The Historian. A Dracula tale, not badly written, but too predictable and lacking in suspense and drama. It's a book that you want to like but you can't because you feel that it's just missing something...
  • John Fowles - The Ivory Tower. I picked this book of short stories at the "La Cupula" hotel in Copacabana, Bolivia and realized that I had already read it long ago, translated in Romanian. I'm not sure if I liked it the first time but I wasn't very impressed now and only found the title story interesting. I was in fact quite annoyed with his fragmented, stream-of-consciousness writing.
  • Jorge Luis Borges - Fictions. I bought this book in Salta, read it while in Buenos Aires and now I can't forgive myself for not having discovered earlier the amazing writing of Borges. What a mistake!
  • Orhan Pamuk - Mein Name ist Rot. Although it was a German translation (picked from among trash at a hostel in Uyuni, Bolivia) and I didn't have a dictionary, I managed to do quite fine and finish this wonderful story about painting, love and the conflict of ideas between East and West in the golden age of the Ottoman Empire.
  • Richard Marius - A writer's companion. Better writing, that's what I need now, and this is a great book for every wannabe essay-author.
  • Khaled Hosseini - The Kite Runner. I liked this book but there was something about Hosseini's style that bothered me - was it his abuse of drama-loaded plotlines or the way he uses adjectives?
  • Chris Hoarie and Peter Chippendale - What is Islam?. A non-judgemental and non-proselytizing journalistic book about the history and meanings of Islam, for western-world people who want to make sense of all the confusion spread around by media and TV.
  • Pearl S. Buck - The Three Daughters of Madame Liang. A story of the revolutionary times and the beginnings of modern China, through the eyes of a family of three sisters, educated in America, and of their mother. Interesting, but for a Nobel-prize author I found the writing surprisingly poor.
  • Jean Sasson - Princess. A horribly-written and sometimes self-serving but nevertheless credible "real" story about the women of the royal house of Saudi Arabia. There has to be someone who can write about the plight of women in some Islamic countries better than this woman!
  • Yann Martel - Story of Pi. A beautifully written, captivating, and easy to read book. The story, however, seems to have a few distinct threads, that do not connect, as I had expected, to form a unit of meaning and symbols. It's as if the author has tried to say too much and some bricks have remained unused at the end.
  • Khaled Hosseini - A Thousand Splendid Suns. His first book was drama incarnate; this second one is even more tear-wrenching. His stories start to sound more and more like south-American telenovelas. Please, cut a little on the drama content - it may actually be more convincing...
  • Cecil Helman - Suburban Shaman. An easy read about the transformation of the relationship of medicine to man, throughout the years. The author, a doctor himself, deplores - but with sufficient irony to avoid sounding righteous - the state of modern medicine which has become extremely depersonalized, and focused on "repairing" defective body parts instead of healing a person. He sees the family doctor as the last link with a long tradition of healing and comforting, perpetuated by shamans in primitive cultures around the globe.
  • Simon Cox - An A to Z of Ancient Egypt. A simple, superficial reference book, made of disconnected chapters - therefore, not requiring too much concentration, useful for pumping up our flimsy knowledge of the many gods and pharaohs before visiting Egypt.
  • John Updike - Trust Me. Beautiful stories about husbands and wives and lovers and cheaters. It's all very American and somehow very sad. I know I have read The Centaur by Updike long ago, but I don't remember the story. This book made me want to read more of him.
  • Greg Marinovich & Joao Silva - The Bang-Bang Club. It's written in a dry, matter-of-fact, sometimes uninspired style, but it offers an amazing, chilling insight into the political events and the horrific violence that followed the breakdown of the apartheid regime in South Africa.
  • Vikas Swarup - Q&A. Funny, upbeat and captivating, this story - which is both part-time comedy and half-way tragedy - of a poor boy from the slums who wins a TV trivia-quiz, will lighten up your day. Besides, it's about India, Bollywood, and becoming a billionaire... how can you not like it?
  • Jacqueline Susann - Valley of the dolls. This was better than I expected. It reads fast and unchallenging but the characters are very likeable and the story is gripping. And since it's all about a couple of beautiful troubled girls, and it doesn't have a happy ending, I guess it was worth the couple of evenings i sacrificed to it.
  • Gregory David Roberts - Shantaram. A wonderful book about the adventures of an Australian fugitive from justice in Bombay. The story is a little too long (900+ pages) and mid-way through the second half it lost some of the grip it had on me. Roberts' writing is profound and entertaining but his biggest strength sometimes turns into his worst weakness: he's a little too good with the metaphors and ends up using too many of them, too often. But overall, the merits of the book far outweigh its shortcomings.
  • Isabel Allende - Daughter of Fortune. From life in the expatriate British community in Valparaiso to the practice of ancient traditional Chinese medicine to the gold fever that gripped California in the mid-eighteenhundreds, Allende knows it all. Funny, epic and well-documented yet witout getting into unessential historical details, the story unfolds gracefully and makes you love the characters.
  • Sarah Macdonald - Holy Cow!. A spirited story about one woman's journey through the spiritual supermarket that is India. It starts funny and frantic and continues in the same easy, almost journalistic tone while the story becomes progressively deeper, more serious and thought-provoking. A must for any westerner who would like to understand a bit of that maniacal, overwhelming country.
  • Loung Ung - First They Killed my Father. A harrowing book covering the experience of a young girl from Phnom Penh in Khmer Rouge-ruled Cambodia. While her first-person story is no doubt true and the atrocities described should make us feel ashamed of belonging to the same human race that has engendered the genocidal Pol Pot, it was nonetheless boring to tears...
  • Graham Greene - Brighton Rock. I always loved Greene's gangster and spy stories; they are interesting precisely because he focuses on the inner conflicts of the characters instead of only caring about the action and the suspense. This one, a story about a boy-gangster in pre-war England, is no exception. However, the 1930's British gang-slang is a little awkward.
  • Rohinton Mistry - A Fine Balance. I started this book in Thailand but I only finished it almost a month after returning to Seattle. The "fine balance" in question is that invisible tipping point where happiness turns into sadness, where material security becomes inescapable poverty, when foes become friends and life flows into death. It's a sad and tear-wrenching book inspired by the everyday tragedies of millions of Indians, but it avoids the temptation of becoming downright sappy, like Khaled Hosseini's Afghan stories. As you put it down having read the last page, you may bitterly realize that all characters have been abandoned by fate to misery and death; but even as this thought crosses your mind, a smile takes over your face - somewhere, somehow, the balance has been restored.
About the business of finding books while traveling...

A traveler who cares about his spirit cannot do without books. On such a long trip like ours, carrying many books from home is impractical and among the ones we did carry, priority was given to travel guides, Lonely Planet, Moon and the likes. So the literature-loving traveler has to rely on finding books in his own language at his destination.

On the road, the most common source of books are book exchanges at backpacker hostels, where books can be traded two-for-one or one-and-some-money-for-one. But while the offer isn't lacking, the quality is abysmally poor. The exchanges abound in "light reading" in all languages (mostly English) - thrillers, spy novels (choose between Tom Clancy and "Tom Clancy's" - the connoisseurs know the difference), cop stories, and romance novels. They usually hold worn paperbacks with vivid colors and bold epithets on the back cover, like "riveting", "adrenalin-loaded" or - according to subject - "sensual" and "emotionally-charged". On the average, it's just a heap of dung, but with enough patience you can find the occasional diamond in the rough - in an Internet-cafe in Copacabana I saw something by Virginia Woolf, but as I came back half hour later with my book to trade, it was already gone.

On the other hand, you have the local bookstores which sometimes carry English books, usually at exorbitant prices. One can find the same paperback garbage there, but the chance of finding something good is significantly better. In fact, in Buenos Aires, almost every bookstore we visited had an English section. Other languages are almost impossible to find. The biggest disappointment was the "Los Amigos Del Libro" bookstore in La Paz, which according to Lonely Planet, was said to have many books in foreign languages. As we finally saw the bookstore open after a long weekend and a day of official festivities, we realized that they had almost exclusively romance novels, some as old as the 50's! Five racks of covers with enamored couples in various poses of passion and abandonment would make anybody run away and lose faith in humanity!

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