Sunday, 6 April 2008

The armchair traveller

I feel like I've been travelling back in time recently, mostly thanks to John Stubbs' excellent Donne: The Reformed Soul but also thanks to the wintry weather that London woke up to this morning. I've been enjoying all the signs of spring - tulips, cherry blossom, budding leaves - but I felt like I'd travelled back to the depths of winter when I opened the blinds this morning! Check out these pictures from our garden this morning.

I'm still wandering the streets of Elizabethan London courtesy of John Stubbs' ability to bring John Donne's world vividly alive. Here's a description of Lincoln's Inn Fields, right outside Lincoln's Inn, where the teenage Donne is studying law:

Beyond the calm college enclosure lay Lincoln's Inn Fields: a large, open, rather dowdy space, yet an arena for a bit of everything in Elizabethan London. It was the rubbish-strewn site of public executions and discontinued building projects, a venue for all kinds of exercise, haggling, get-togethers and theatricals. Horses were taken there for a runabout, clopping perilously close at times to passers-by. Cripples and beggars assembled at their stations. Some of the city's pricier brothels and gambling dens were located in the lanes around the Fields, and prostitutes would come to take some air and loiter for early trade. The district grew livelier as the day wore on. Mountebanks would arrive with their cures and aphrodisiacs, set up their stalls, and crowds would assemble to heckle them. Puppet shows would open and throttled bears would dance on chains.

With such a world jostling for his attention it's a wonder that Donne got any study done!

Meanwhile, Eva, over at A Striped Armchair has led me to an excellent new challenge - Orbis Terrarum. This whole world reading challenge is being hosted by the foreign literature lovers over at B&bexlibris and is incredibly flexible, asking only that 9 different books, by 9 different authors, from 9 different countries are read in the 9 months from April to December 2008. Since Eva's post about her bookish jaunt around the world have given me itchy feet of my own and since my tbr stack is currently loaded with an interesting mix of international books (and there are some other international books I'm looking for an excuse to buy!), I'm packing my bags and signing up for this challenge myself.

I'm going to start off my armchair journey in Europe, with a trip to Albania courtesy of Fatos Kongoli's The Loser. This came to my attention via Index on Censorship's Freedom of Expression 2008 shortlist. According to its blurb, The Loser is a moving portrayal of the suppression not just of art by a controlled press and other repressive state mechanisms, but of a whole people denied the freedom to express themselves but is also a moving novel of love and loss. This sounds like just the entrance into contemporary Albanian literature that I need!

From Europe, I'm going to head to Iran with Azar Nafisi's memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran. I recently picked this up in a charity shop, after a fellow book browser interrupted me with the words "I'd never normally do this, but you simply must read that book - it's excellent". Since it takes a lot for most English people to break their reserve and speak to strangers, I'm thinking this book will be real treat.

From Iran I'm hopping over to Sri Lanka with A. Sivanandan's When Memory Dies. I love epic novels about families, and this novel about 3 generations of a Sri Lankan family, searching for coherence and continuity in a country broken by colonial occupation and then riven by ethnic wars, sounds excellent.

From Sri Lanka, I'll be heading further east, to Japan with Yasunari Kawabata's The Master of Go. Go is a game of strategy, and like all the best games, it's simple in its fundamentals but infinitely complex in its execution. This novel follows a competition between an older Master and younger challenger, a competition that turns into an elegy for an entire society. I've not read anything by the Nobel laureate Kawabata, but reading about Snow Country over at Verbivore's Incurable Logophilia made me resolve to read him this year. This challenge is the perfect chance to make good that resolution.

While on my travels, I'm going to bend the rules slightly so I can visit a place I've wanted to visit ever since reading Sara Wheeler's remarkable Terra Incognita several years ago - Antarctica. While Antarctica is actually a continent, rather than a country, I'm making this challenge flexible enough to allow me to include it. Terra Incognita is an exceptional book, chronicling Wheeler's experience as the first woman selected by the American government to be the "Writer in Residence at teh US South Pole Station". Luckily for me, I've got another of Wheeler's books lurking in my tbr pile: Cherry: A Life of Apsley Cherry-Garrard. Cherry (author of The Worst Journey in the World ) was one of the youngest member's of Captain Scott's final expedition to the Antarctic. I've also got Granta's beautiful anthology The Ends of the Earth , a collection of writings about the Arctic and Antarctic, to dip into for more about the frozen polar worlds.

From the icy landscape of Antarctica to the sunnier climate of Malaysia via Evening is the Whole Day by Preeta Samarasan. This debut novel isn't published in the UK until early June (it's out in mid-May for you lucky Americans), but I first heard about this novel from friends, as the writer is an old school friend of some of my closest friends, and have been planning to read it ever since checking it out via Amazon.

From Malaysia I'm going to journey to Australia via Sally Morgan's My Place. I spotted this novel in the sidebar of Antipodean Owl's blog and it seems Morgan's story of uncovering her family's suppressed Aboriginal heritage is a landmark in Australian literature.

I'm going to journey onto the Carribean, specifically the Dominican Republic, via Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. I read (mostly) excellent reviews of this when it came out in hardcover and am looking forward to seeing what all the fuss is about!

The last stop on my whole world reading adventure will be Iceland, where I'll travel thanks to Halldor Laxness's Independent People. Iceland fascinates me, perched as it is in the no man's land of the north Atlantic between North America and Europe. I'd love to visit some day but, for this year at least, visiting via the Orbis Terrarum challenge is the best I can do.

In other blogging news, I've finally succumbed to BookMooch after reading Heather's post about going green over at this month's Estella's Revenge (and have added a little widget to my sidebar). I signed up on Friday night and I can see it's going to be seriously addictive! I've already got seven books to send, and have mooched my first book and am sure I'll be mooching plenty more in the future.


Andi said...

Yayyy for BookMooch! It is quite an addiction for me, too. I love it. So easy to snag new things and it's a wonderful way to get the used books out of my house (those that I'll never read again, that is).

Enjoy Reading Lolita in Tehran! I adored it.

Logophile said...

Andi, I fully agree about the joys of BookMooch - I'm already thinking I love it. And glad to hear you loved Reading Lolita in Tehran!

bethany said...

Welcome to the OT Challenge!!! Great list of books you have there, I hope they all turn out to be spectacular. I can't wait too see what you have to say about them.

Again, Welcome. (:

Logophile said...

Bethany, thanks so much for hosting such an excellent challenge! I can't to start browsing through all the other books people are reading...

Eva said...

Your trip sounds like so much fun! Can't wait to follow along. :D And yay for bookmooch!

Sarah said...

Donne is a great favourite of mine, so I'm glad to hear the Stubbs bio is good. I've been eyeing it off as something to read when I have my annual leave in a few months.

It will be interesting to hear about your international reading. I've only read Reading Lolita in Tehran and My Place from the titles you mention but can highly recommend them.

And as an Australian, I've never seen so much snow in my life, certainly not in Spring!

verbivore said...

What a wonderfully rich stack of books - I can't wait to read your thoughts as you start to go through these! And I just love Bookmooch, couldn't live without it.
I think I might have to read the kawabata as well...and several of the others you mention

monix said...

The John Stubbs book on Donne has been sitting on my TBR pile since November, thanks for the nudge to get on and read it.

I've never entered a book challenge as I think it probably demands more self-discipline than I exercise about what to read next, but this sounds interesting. I think I could almost complete it from books I already have lined up. Is there a public shaming of those who fail to meet the challenge - perhaps a banner or widget for the blog? I might be the first to get one!

Logophile said...

Eva, thanks for letting me know about the OT challenge - happy travels to us both!

Sarah, Donne is also one of my favourite poets! And glad to hear that you rate Reading Lolita and My Place so highly.

Verbivore, my first BM book is on its way and I've just mailed 7 - I can see this transforming my bookshelves!

Maureen, that would be too funny - the widget/banner equivalent of stocks and rotten fruit! I could never do a challenge that was too prescriptive. I'm actually finding my challenges are bringing such interesting books in front of me. Like the Donne, which languished in my tbr stack for about 9 months before the chunkster challenge gave me the push I needed to read it.

Anonymous said...

I'm going to second the recommendation for 'Reading Lolita in Tehran'. It is a superb book, a real eye-opener. And I must get hold of a copy of the book on Donne. It sounds wonderful.

Logophile said...

Ann, I'm so glad to hear yet more praise for the Reading Lolita book!

Anonymous said...

Thanks again for including my book! You've got some great choices on there, and I hope mine will live up to the rest!

-- Preeta

Logophile said...

Preeta, I'm very excited about reading your novel!