Tag Archives: Armchair Travel

International Women’s Day!

Today we revisit a post from last year that look at the history of International Women’s Day!

New York, 1908

Some sources cite the first ‘Women’s Day’ as taking place in 1908 when 15,000 women marched through the streets of New York in support of shorter hours, better pay and voting rights, but one year later, in 1909, the Socialist Party of America declared a National Women’s Day on Sunday, February 28–the day was specifically chosen to allow even working women to participate (and let’s just remember here that a Socialist party is not a Communist party, and the goals of one are by no means the goals of the other).  And one year after that, and the second International Conference of Working Women. which was held in Copenhagen, Clara Zetkin of Germany suggested an International Women’s Day. The day, as she proposed, would be recognized in every country, to advocate for issues critical to all women.   The next International Women’s Day, in 1911, was recognized by nine countries.

In 1913, the Russian Socialist Party moved the celebration to March 8, the day on which it is still observed today.  During the First World War, women’s work in international pacifist organizations used this day to promote work across borders and above international hostilities to make life better for human people everywhere. Though they didn’t bring the war to an end (though not through lack of trying), in 1917, women in Russian went on strike with a message of “peace and bread”–and four days later, the Tzar abdicated, signaling an end to Russia’s involvement in the First World War.

Bread and Peace Strike, Petrograd, 1917

Though the UN officially recognized IWD in 1975, it hasn’t been a big thing for quite some time…..until, in 2011, President Barack Obama declared March ‘Women’s History Month’, and the nine countries around the world that first celebrated IWD developed national programs to promote education and opportunities for young women.  This year, IWD will be celebrated in the following countries: Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, China (for women only), Cuba, Georgia, Guinea-Bissau, Eritrea, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Madagascar (for women only), Moldova, Mongolia, Montenegro, Nepal (for women only), Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uganda, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Vietnam and Zambia.

So what can you do to celebrate?  If you want to go big, pledge to support the equality of human life worldwide by sponsoring universal education and access to fundamental resources.  And then do something about it.  Teach a kid to read.  Donate to a local charity.  Tell a young person in your life, regardless of gender, that their contribution to the world is important.  Listen more.
And then, come into the Library and check out some books that have been selected from around the world for this year’s International Women’s Day!

From London’s Evening Standard:

The Handmaid’s TaleMargaret Atwood:
Set in the near future, Canadian author Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel follows the story of Offred, a young handmaid to a powerful commander, who is a lynchpin in a totalitarian Christian theocracy which has overthrown the United States government. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are valued only if their ovaries are viable. What unfolds is a story of female subjugation at the hands of a male dictatorship, and the desperate hope of a young woman who clings to the memories of her former life and identity. As unpleasant as it is brilliant, this cruel and bone-chilling story will stay with your for the rest of your life – not just because it’s terrifying, but because it’s terrifyingly possible. 

From Australia’s Reading Australia:

Lilian’s Story by Kate Grenville:
Lilian Singer was born in 1901, a time when the education of women was considered unnecessary, even dangerous. Intelligent, resilient, and with a burning desire for independence, Lilian rejects the life deemed “acceptable” by society. Instead, she becomes an eccentric – energetic, happy and true to herself. This story is all the more captivating for being inspired by the real-life Bea Miles, a familiar figure to Sydney-dwellers, who lived on the streets and recited Shakespeare in exchange for money.

From TheCultureTrip:

A Woman in the Crossfire : Diaries of the Syrian Revolution by Samar Yazbek
Samar Yazbek’s writing takes many different forms: novels, short stories, cultural criticism and scripts fill her résumé, and she has even been responsible for editing a feminist e-zine, entitled Women of Syria. What unites all of her writing is a deep-seated political and social awareness and engagement with contemporary issues, which she weaves throughout her work. Her most recent work A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution (2012) is a brutal account of her involvement in the protests against the Assad regime, before her eventual escape and exile to Paris. The book was awarded the PEN Pinter Prize, awarded yearly to an international writer who has been persecuted for their work.

In a survey by The Guardian on their readers’ favorite books by women:

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
“Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s book Americanah has moved me like no other in recent memory…It’s an honest book about race, identity and the constant longing and nostalgia one feels for this metaphorical place called home…Reading this has made me realise that some of the most powerful narratives in contemporary fiction have been written by young, highly educated female African writers, who are tired of the old clichés frequently bandied around about Africa. Ngozi Adichie is a new, powerful and incredibly talented voice; her novel Americanah is the expression of a different African tale, of a continent and its people that have many more magnetic stories to tell, as well as critiques to raise about the so-called enlightened West.”

From the Center for Southeast Asia Studies:

Soul survivors : stories of women and children in Cambodia by Carol Wagner
Soul Survivors gives voice to women and children in Cambodia who survived the genocide (1975 – 1979), when nearly two million people died from execution, starvation, or disease. Through their detailed personal stories, fourteen people reveal the brutality of Pol Pot’s regime, how they managed to survive, and what it took to rebuild their lives afterward. This new edition is updated and contains recent historical events and an epilog telling what happened to the survivors since the first edition was published in 2002. It also includes information about the two charitable humanitarian organizations (friendshipwithcambodia.org and artinabox.org) the author and photographer were inspired to create to help the poor in Cambodia.

From SugarStreetReview:

Women of Algiers in Their Apartment by Assia Djebar
The elder stateswoman of Francophone literature, Djebar is one of the most distinguished writers in the Arab world, although she herself comes from the Algeria’s significant Berber minority.   Djebar, whose real name is Fatima-Zohra Imalayène, has written about the role and repression of women in Algeria in many of her novels and says “Like so many other Algerian women authors, I write with a sense of urgency against misogyny and regression.” …A number of her novels have also been translated into English from the French, and all are more than deserving of your time. We particularly recommend Women of Algiers in Their Apartment, if you can rustle up a copy from somewhere.

From Msafropolitan:

Part of My Soul Went With Him by Winnie Mandela:
For insight into the life of one of the most revolutionary, African female figures of our times, this semi-autobiographical book is a must read. Winnie has achieved more for Africans, female and male; and for women, of all ethnicities, than others could dream of. Her life is one full of sacrifices, personal and political, and yet one gets the sense that if she were to choose, she would do it all over again. Through the collection of conversations, letters, supplementary speeches and anecdotes, it becomes clear exactly how much in debt we are to her.

In solidarity, readers.  Happy International Women’s Day!

Resolve to Read: Colonial or Postcolonial Literature

As we mentioned here previously, we here at the Library are Resolving to Read (more…different….) in 2018, and tackling both Book Riot’s and Scholastic’s 2018 Reading Challenges.  In the hopes of encouraging you to broader your literary horizons along with us, here are some suggestions for books that fall within the categories of the various challenges.

Today’s Challenge: Book Riot 2018 Read Harder Challenge
Category: A Work of Colonial or Postcolonial Literature

A British cartoon showing imperial officers sitting atop a throne of biscuit boxes, forcing native African to bow before them–an image that largely sums up the history of imperialism in Africa

First off, what precisely does “colonial literature” or “postcolonial literature” mean?  Book Riot tackled this question in their post on the subject, but I think we could get a little more nuanced in our discussion.  Typically, “colonial literature” refers to a work written during a period of time when one country was actively participating in the colonization or imperialistic exploitation of another geographic area.  For the record, colonization means that the imperial power sent its people to live in a different place (such as the British sending British people to live in South Africa or parts of what is now the United States), but there are many sites that experienced colonialism even if they were not formal colonies.  These include places like Puerto Rico, which is governed by the United States but not granted statehood, or Nigeria, which was largely ruled without British inhabitants, but was instead a site of palm oil extraction and cash-cropping.  Colonial literature is traditionally written by the colonizers–that is, the Europeans or Americans who held the power and engaged in the practice of colonizing or exploiting another geographic area.

To use an example: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a stunning, disturbing piece of Colonial Literature, because  it A) Takes place within a site of empire (Africa) B) Discusses the practices of imperialism (in this case, both the economic and the social aspects) and C) Does not discuss a world without empire.  Conrad isn’t making an argument that everyone would be better off without empire.  He is critiquing the process and commenting on its results, but his world is one where empires exist, without question.

It is in their definition of “Postcolonial Literature” that I really want to complicate things.  Typically, Postcolonial Literature is literature written after the period of direct colonization or imperialism ends, typically by a member of the colonized people.  That is, after a country has been declared independent by their imperial rulers–for example, Uganda was declared independent of Britain in 1962, while Algeria was declared independent of France in the same year.   But that doesn’t mean that any book written in Uganda or Algeria after 1962 (or any other site of empire) is a work of post-colonial literature.  Because, in fact, “postcolonial” refers not only to a moment in history, but to a way of thinking.  Postcolonial thinking is able to understand the abusive power relationship between the colonizer and the colonized and harm it does to both peoples within a historic context.

There are two big problems with the phrase “post-colonial”.  The first is that it implies to many that the “colonial” period ended.  While this may be true in practice, many sites around the world are still grappling with the trauma, the structural inequalities, the cultural ruptures, and social stigmas that colonialism and imperialism imposed on them.  The second problem with “post-colonial” is that is that it insists on a “colonial period.”  This phrase, first, subtly reinforcing that harmful power relationship by invoking it constantly.  A number of books written by authors from countries that were once colonies or sites of empire get labeled as “post-colonial” when they have nothing to do with the imperial relationship.  They get that label based on their country’s and people’s history.  For example, R. K. Narayan‘s novels set in South India deal very little at all with issues of empire or imperialism, yet are often put forward as “postcolonial works.”  And that is a unjust as the imperial project itself.  Second, a number of books that are considered “postcolonial” in their arguments and insight, were written during the actual period of empire, like Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.  So we need to be careful with our use of the term “post-colonial” and make sure it applies to works that specifically address the problems and effects of imperialism.  These problems can be structural, political, personal, economic, cultural, or social.  But just because a book was written in India doesn’t make it a work of post-colonial literature.

As all these words might imply, fulfilling this part of the Book Riot challenge might not be easy, but it’s an incredibly impactful and eye-opening one.  The complex  issues of imperialism a very much still a part of our world and our lives, and literature allows us to access these issues in a deeply personal and meaningful way.  And, on top of that, there are some darned good books in these categories to be read!  So let’s get started…here are just a few recommendations to get you started on your exploration of colonial and post-colonial literature!

 Half a Yellow Sun : Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s multiple-award-winning book is set in Nigeria years after independence, and deals with the conflict and violence that resulted from years of British interference in Nigeria, the struggle that many of the colonized people in Nigeria endured trying to relate to each other, and the way education systems in colonized sites isolate, differentiate, and, yet, offer the potential for colonized people to escape the hardship of their lives.  It’s a difficult, beautiful, intelligent, and eye-opening book that makes really big, political issues both understandably and movingly human.

Nervous Conditions:  Tsitsi Dangarembga’s novel about two cousins growing up in Zimbabwe highlights the bizarre disparity between people depending on their relationship to imperial power, as well as the implicit misogyny inherent in imperial spaces.  In post-colonial Rhodesia (the name of the nation now known as Zimbabwe), Tambu, whose family is reeling from the death of her brother, is invited to her uncle house to attend school with her cousin, Nyasha.  The opportunity is a life-changing one, but, as Tambu will discover, is a dangerous one–especially for Nyasha, whose experience within the colonial school system is one of the most heartbreaking depictions of imperialism I can remember reading.

Passage to India: E.M. Forster’s novel is one that was, for years, considered a very early work of postcolonial fiction because it discusses the Indian independence movement, but recently, a number of readers and scholars have argued that Forester’s inability to escape his own European viewpoint makes it much more a colonial novel (which shows just how tricky this category can be!).  The story focuses on around four characters: Dr. Aziz, his British friend Mr. Cyril Fielding, Mrs. Moore, and Miss Adela Quested, and the alleged assault of Miss Quested by Dr. Aziz.  Dr. Aziz’s trial brings the racial tensions in India to a boil, and leaves all the characters forever changed.  This is a challenging book that, as mentioned, is still a hot topic of literary discussion today, making it all the more worth the read.

The Man Who Would Be King: Rudyard Kipling was an imperial supporter throughout his life, even if his support was a bit ambiguous and laced with criticism in some places.  Though Kim is probably his best known work of colonial fiction, this story really drives the hubris and absurdities of imperialism home in a story that is still exciting and unsettling to this day.  Told by an unnamed narrator (Kipling himself for all intents and purposes), the story focuses on two British adventurers,  Daniel Dravot and Peachey Carnehan, who decide that India isn’t big enough for them, and set off to cheat and wheedle their way into becoming Kings of a remote area of Afghanistan (at that point a British protectorate).  Two years later, the narrator encounters Carnehan again, alone, and burdened not only with an incredible story, but with the crown that Dravot once wore on his head.  There is nothing very heroic at all about the two protagonists of this story, so don’t expect a heroic narrative here.  But it is emblematic, first of the kind of violence and arrogance that imperialism could inspire, and second of the kind of audacious, grand-narrative style fiction that was popular back home in England, that both made people frightened of natives while dreaming of conquering their land.

Reading though our Fears: North Korea

To say that we’ve been hearing a lot about North Korea lately would be the grossest of understatements.  Every day, it seems, our existence is further imperiled by North Korea.

From youtube.com

But the more these stories come out, the more North Korea sounds like a boogeyman, or a classic movie monster, lumbering around and menacing all and sundry.  The more we hear about North Korea, or see its leading examining a bomb, or see a parade of missiles, the easier and easier it is to forget that North Korea isn’t a cinematic villain, but a place.  A place where people live.  People who are made of the same basic matter that we are.  People who love their families, who enjoy sunny days, who get hungry, and people who worry about what tomorrow might bring.

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, which is the official title of the country is question, is an extraordinarily secretive and secluded country into which very few people manage to enter or exit safely.  As a result, it’s difficult for us, outside of the Korean peninsula, to understand what life is really like there.  It’s difficult, at times, to remember that this is a nation of human beings like us.

And that is why reading is so critically important–today, perhaps more than ever.  Books help us learn the truth behind the screaming headlines, or the reality behind the rhetoric.  But more importantly, reading–and reading fiction, especially–helps us be more empathetic people.  It’s harder to see someone as inhuman, or subhuman, or unhuman, when you have had a chance to see the world through their eyes.

Needless to say, there isn’t a great deal of first-hand information coming out of North Korea, in either fiction or non-fiction.  But that makes the sources and stories that we do have that much more important, and that much more vital to helping us understand what life is like on this other side of this violent divide.  So here are a few titles that are available at the library now that can shed some light on life in North Korea, and, hopefully, provide you with some insight into life there:

The AccusationThis book is one of the most dangerous out there right now.  Written in secret between 1989 and 1995 and smuggled out of the country in 2013, these short works offer powerful insights into a world within the high and restrictive borders of North Korea.  The Guardian published a fascinating piece on the origin of the stories and their author, who was–or perhaps is–employed by the nation’s official writer’s association.  It took years, and a coalition of brave people, to get these stories out of North Korea, but the results absolutely justify that work.  In each of these seven tales, industrious North Koreans, “innocent people whose lives consisted of doing as they were told”, accidentally into the clutches of the state’s real, and deadly power. Some are jailed, some escape, die, or go mad, but the real culmination of each story occurs in that instant of revelation, when they understand that, despite everything they have always been told, the state is malign.  The Chinese human rights worker, Do Hee-yun, who spearheaded the efforts to rescue this manuscript, has said she hasn’t heard from the person known as Bandi for months.  What the ramifications of sending his manuscript into the world instead of trying to leave, we cannot know.  But it makes these stories that must more precious, and that much more necessary.

Without You There Is No Us: My Time With the Sons of North Korea’s Elite: Suki Kim is a Korean-American teacher who worked as a visiting English instructor at the all-male Pyongyang University of Science and Technology in 2011.  This memoir describes not only her experiences with her students, whose education in technology is severely hampered by the limitations the government imposes on the internet and computer programming.  It also talks about her experiences adjusting–or not adjusting–to life under a military dictatorship.  The patriotic songs, the parades, the constant enforcement of party loyalty–all of it is chilling to read.  But there are glimpses of hope in these pages, even in an act we might take for granted, like logging onto the Internet; watching a Harry Potter film; the thought-provoking questions from her students.  And these human interactions are what make this memoir such a memorable and such a human one.

Under the Same Sky: from starvation in North Korea to salvation in America: As a child, Joseph Kim survived North Korea’s Great Famine (which lasted, approximately from 1994 to 1998), which sent most of his family searching for food and aid along the Chinese border.  Joseph was left alone to starve, until he made the decision to cross the border, as well.  He was fortunate enough to be taken in, given shelter, and eventually, through the help of a number of humanitarians, he was brought to the US, without knowing a word of English, or having any connections on which he could rely.  This book is Joseph’s harrowing experiences of growing up during some of the darkest days in North Korea’s modern history (a period about which we still know tragically little), and his very challenging immigrant experience.  But is also a story of hope, survival, faith and endurance, told with insight, brutal honesty, and impressive narrative form.  Publisher’s Weekly’s glowing review noted, “Told with poise and dignity, Kim’s story…provides vivid documentation of a remarkable life. It also offers an important account of atrocities committed within North Korea that have been hidden from the West—and indeed, most of the rest of the world. A courageous and inspiring memoir.”

Wanderlust Reading List: Belgium

Happy Monday, dear readers!

Today, we bring you a wanderlust reading list based on my recent trip to Belgium…it was for a history conference, which was great, but to be honest, I was so busy, I didn’t even get a waffle.  I’m not joking.


I spent most of my time in Ghent, a port city that grew along the convergence of the Scheldt and Leie rivers, and was one of the wealthiest cities in Belgium–and Europe–in the middle ages.  Flemish art and culture flourished here, as can been seen in the stunning architecture and artwork throughout the city; for the record, ‘Flemish’ is a word that describes the Dutch language and culture, as well as the numerous dialects of the Dutch language (Belgian Dutch sounds surprisingly different from Netherlands Dutch, which I never knew!)

The city remained a major site for the textile industry, making it a hub of culture and commerce well into the 19th century, and the War of 1812 ended with the signing of the Treaty of Ghent.  Two years later, the University of Ghent was established, and remains a prestigious place of learning to this day.

Ghent by day
Ghent by day

Though Ghent was occupied by the German Army in both World War One and World War Two, but remained comparatively untouched, especially in comparison to places like Ypres, which was literally wiped off the map.  As a result, Ghent is a stunningly beautiful city, with panoramic river views, big statues, wide, welcoming squares, and plenty of outdoor spaces in which to take it all in.  There are oodles of bars, cafes, and restaurants, offering a huge variety of food and drink–particularly Belgian beer, which is typically light in color and so wheaty that it’s rather like drinking a dinner roll.  As a result, it’s a perfect choice for drinking while sitting a spell near the river and watching the varied world go by.

Ghent by night

And while I didn’t get a waffle in the course of my travels, I did, however, find a charming English-language bookstore by the Leie River, who introduced me to a whole range of Belgian literature (in translation, obviously) that made me feel like I had spent weeks wandering the Flemish countryside, waffle in hand, chatting with charming Dutch-speaking locals and their picturesque cows.  And, thanks to that chat, I was able to get a number of recommendations for those who would like to take an armchair adventure to Belgium–and might very well come back having experienced much more culture than I did!

3352645The Square of RevengePieter Aspe is a best-selling Flemish crime author whose detective Pieter Van In, who lives and works in a fictionalized Bruge, is fast becoming a cultural institution.  He’s got every bad habit you can think of, from chain-smoking to gruff, phlemgy interruptions of anyone with whom he disagrees, but there is no doubt that Van In can get the job done.  In this first of his cases, Van In is called to investigate a break-in of one of Bruge’s most famous, luxurious jewelry store; but rather than make off with the assortment of precious and historic jewels, the vandals dumped them in a vat of corrosive acid, leaving only a scrap of paper on which a strange square has been drawn in the burgled safe.  Together with the stunning and sharp DA Hannelore Martens, Van In finds himself being drawn ever further into a case that becomes increasingly complicated with every step.  Not only is this book a superb introduction to a beloved Belgian series, but armchair adventurers will love Aspe’s descriptions of Bruge and the lives of his characters there.


3699331Styx:  The prolific and consistently surprising Bavo Dhooge was born in Ghent, though his latest paranormal detective novel is set in the coastal city of Ostend.  Rather like Aspe’s Van In, the detective in this story, the middle-aged Rafael Styx, is cranky and sore, dealing with a bad hip and a failing marriage.  However, this case deals with a ruthlessly clever serial killer known as The Stuffer, who fills his victims full of sand and poses them as public art installations.  Indeed, Styx very nearly winds up as The Stuffer’s latest victims–but rather than dying of the shot he took to the chest, Styx instead wakes up a zombie.  Though he has to deal with some unpleasant side-effects of this condition, not least of which is nearly-controllable bodily decay and a growing taste for human flesh, Styx finds that there are benefits–including the ability to travel within Ostend’s history, which gives Styx a very unique insight into his criminal prey.  Dhooge’s description of Ostend during the Belle Epoque is not to be missed, but it is his wickedly black humor and willingness to take his story where you least expect it, is really what makes this book such a treat to read.

3020008On Black Sisters Street: A native of Nigeria, Chika Unigwe now lives in Belgium, and her stories relate the pain, struggles, and consistent loss that is the immigrant experience.  In this novel, set in Antwerp, four women share an apartment in the red-light district, pledged to a ruthless Madam and an enigmatic pimp, they are seen by most as little more than commodities.  But in Unigwe’s startling and deeply moving story, each woman presents her own story, revealing her deep humanity, and the secrets, hopes, and fears that drive her onward.  Though bleak, the bond that forms between these women is powerful and transformative, making this story far more than a tear-jerker.  It is also a ruthlessly precise and incisive view of Europe from an African perspective, giving new insight into the perennial issue of immigration, to Europe, as well as around the world.

2046498Cheese: There is no political satire quite like a Belgian political satire, and this classic by Dutch author William Elsschot is a hallmark of that particular genre.  First published in 1933, this novel tells the story of Frans Laarmans, a harried clerk in Antwerp who suddenly finds himself the chief agent for Edam cheese, those little red-rind Dutch cheeses, and ordered to sell thousands of wheels, and some 370 cases containing ten thousand full-cream cheeses.  This might be some people’s dream come true, but not only does Laarmans not know how to run a business, he doesn’t even like cheese!  As a visit from his bosses loom, Laarmans traverses the city, exploring its rigid class structure and charming foibles, gently cracking under the pressure of cheese.  Though Elsschot had a stellar wit, and delivers the details of this story with deadpan humor, he still manages to build quite a lot of tension into the story, dragging readers along on Laarmans’ quest to sell cheese and recover his life.  This book also provides some fascinating insight into the world of historic Belgium, and all its quirks.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this adventure, dear readers!

Wanderlust Reading List: Time-Traveling Edition!

1886 Map of the British Empire
1886 Map of the British Empire

When I am not hanging out behind the circulation desk at the Library and oogling all the books, I teach history at A Nearby University.  This summer, I get to teach a course on the History of the British Empire, which is a favorite area of mine to study, and therefore, makes for a really fun class to teach.

ee9288b926216afacf135c653ea08557Over the course of the semester, I’ve come to a few realizations…first, I know a ridiculous amount of information on the history of the British Empire that will probably never prove useful outside the classroom (unless Alex Trebek returns my phone calls…).  Secondly, because my students really enjoy learning through fiction, I’ve been discovering a wealth of new and classic stories from around the British Empire that I though might be fun to share with you.

The great part about a course on Empire, and especially one with as vast and enduring a history as the British Empire, is that you get to read around the world as you study; we’ve read tales from India and Zimbabwe, Ireland to Burma, England itself to New Zealand, from the 18th century through to nearly the present day, exploring stories that give glimpses into native culture, into interactions between those natives and the British, and the ways in which Empire shaped, and forever changed the people who were involved in it.

images (10)

Of course, there’s no escaping the damage that imperialism caused in many of these places, and one always has to contend with the kind of “rah-rah Empire” books that were especially popular in the late 19th century, with Alan Quartermaine and the Boy’s Own Adventure tales, and while those are useful, especially for understanding how empire looked to the imperialists, what’s really incredible are the local, native voices that we can still discover through the stories they left, and the memories they shared of a time that has passed, but from which we are still, as a species, trying to recover.

So let’s go on a bit of an expedition, shall we, and take a look at some stories from across the history of the British Empire.  Here are just a few selections to sooth your Wanderlust (and Time-Traveling Desires!)…for a little while, at least…

2650001Sea of PoppiesThis first book in Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy is set in 1838, primarily aboard the Ibis, a ship owned by a wealthy and powerful opium merchant, and  transporting Indian girmitiyas (indentured workers) to Mauritius.  Ghosh takes exquisite care detailing the histories of the Ibis’ human cargo, showing just how vast and diverse the British-controlled areas of south-east Asia were, particularly during the opium wars (fought between the British and the Chinese Imperial Navy over Britain’s illegal marketing of opium in China).  The trilogy spins out as the Ibis makes it way through hurricanes and human drama to its destination, and Ghosh, who is a master of language and description, makes sure that readers feel each event, not only on their skin, but in their souls.

2300381Three Day RoadNext (in terms of chronological setting) is Joseph Boyden’s stunning novel about two Cree soldiers fighting on the Western Front in the First World War.  Boyden based his novel on the story of Francis Pegahmagabow, the most decorated First Nations soldier in the Canadian Army, and also Canada’s most effective sniper during World War One, as well as John Shiwak, an Inuk, who also served as a sniper, and who died at the Battle of Cambrai .  But this story is about far more than military exploits.  Boyden explores every aspect of Elijah’s and Xavier’s life, from their upbringing on a reservation, and the indescribable harm that mission schools wrought on Cree culture, to their war experiences, and the agony of returning home.  As a result, not only do readers get a sense of these men’s incredible spirit, but of their own individual strength, honed through years of oppression and dedication to their families, even as the world around them keeps trying to pull them apart.  This book is fairly unique within the cannon of First World War literature, as it gives voice to a group of native peoples who tales, until very recently, have largely been overlooked in traditional histories, but for all that, is wonderfully readable and wholly immersive.

2317102Nervous Conditions:  Tsitsi Dangarembga’s debut novel, which was named twelfth in a list of “Africa’s Top 100 Books” (an interesting list, though it continues ignoring the individual countries that make up the continent of Africa) is a partially autobiographical tale of a young girl struggling to get an education.  Tambu–the primary character of the novel–is a fierce and determined little girl, who sees, with painful clarity, not only the injustices in the world around her, caused by the racist ideology fostered by imperialism, but also in her family, as her older brother is sent off to an elite boarding school while she is forced to remain at home.  Everything changes, however, when her brother dies, giving Tambu the chance to go to school.  This is a book that works on a number of levels; as a coming of age story, it is wonderfully moving, and immediately engaging.  As a novel of colonialism, Dangarembga doesn’t back down from confronting the system that has limited her people and culture so forcefully.  As a memoir, it is very sensitive to its characters, their traditions, and the motivations that drive them to act as they do, making the final, gut-wrenching scene that much more powerful.

2583398The Wind that Shakes the Barley:  So, this isn’t a book, I know.  However, it’s been the favorite of my class to date this semester, so I couldn’t not include it on this list.  This film, written and directed by Ken Loach, tells the story of the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921) and the Irish Civil War (1921-1923) through the eyes of the O’Donovan brothers and their comrades.  Cillian Murphy plays Damien, the idealistic younger brother, whose life-long goal of being a doctor is utterly derailed when he sees firsthand the violence of the British on the people of his hometown.  This is a challenging, brutal, and surprisingly human film that really gets to the deeply personal motives behind the Irish independence movement, and the effects of that struggle on those who fought it on both sides.


So, enjoy, felling Wanderers–and safe travels!

Wanderlust Reading List: Finland


About two years ago, I was lucky enough to be accepted to an academic conference in Helsinki.  And because I don’t really deal in the world of reality all that well, I immediately went to the Library Catalog and found some books set in Helsinki in order to get a feel for the place.  Though these books didn’t really help me navigate the streets of Helsinki, it did give me a few wonderful weeks of reading, and the incredible range of stories that were currently being told in Finland.

Finland-MapThe facts, so to speak, are these: Finland is the eighth-largest country in Europe by area, and with a population of roughly 5.5 (including over 9,000 indigenous people known as the Sami) , it is also the least sparsely populated country within the European Union.  Historically speaking, it was considered a part of the country of Sweden, before becoming incorporated into the Russian Empire in 1809.  Though it declared its independence during the Russian Revolution in 1917, it was still deeply effected by the lasting violence of the Russian Civil War, which divided Finland’s population, and resulted in the Soviet Union maintaining political influence over the country throughout the Cold War.  Finnish nationalism was sustained, particularly during the time it was under Russian rule, through folk tales and poems.  Novels by Finnish authors began to appear in the late 19th century, beginning with Aleksis Kivi’s Seven Brothers in 1870.  Because of literature and identity are so bound together, Finland is a highly literate country that genuinely loves its books.

akateeminen-kirjakauppaFinland has been ranked among the top performers by international organizations for education, civil liberties, quality of life, freedom of the press, and human development.  It is also home to the Akateeminen bookstore, one of the most beautiful bookstores in the world, according to a number of tourist and literary sites.  From personal experience, I can also say that the people I met were genuinely kind–especially the reindeer herder I met at the Hakaniemi Market (a beautiful outdoor market featuring crafts, food, and reindeer pelts), who very patiently explained all about the reindeer in Lapland to me, even after I got all excited, because the only thing I knew about Lapland was that the Snow Queen lived there, and maintained an impressive equanimity when I face-planted into the display of reindeer pelts he had for sale (the softest. things. ever.  Seriously).

Hi Reindeer!

So pull up some salmon, and come along with me on a brief tour of the literature of Finland in all its many and wonderfully varied forms, with the benefits of remaining jet-lag free!

2940388Tales from MoominvalleyTove Jansson is probably the most well-known of Finland’s authors, mostly because of her utterly charming Moomins, a family of fairytale animals who kind of resemble hippos.  The Moomin family is made up of Moominmamma, Moominpappa, and their son, Moomintroll, who live in the Moominvalley with their many friends and neighbors.  Though the Moomins were created for children, the lessons and messages in the stories are just as meaningful and engaging for adults, perhaps even more so, because Jansson’s stories are so multi-layered and the messages are presented subtly.  She stated in interviews throughout her life that the characters in the books were inspired by her friends and family, but that she herself was a combination of Moomintroll and Little My, the little girl who lives with the Moomns and is brash, disrespectful, delights in disorder, but, ultimately, is a good friend to those she loves.  I love that Jansson made her own bad qualities into the protagonist of her book, because it makes it so much easier for readers to appreciate everything about themselves, good and bad, as well.

TheUnknownSoldierThe Unknown SoldierVäinö Linna’s first major novel is considered a classic work of Finnish literature, and offers a stunningly, often brutally honest look into the lived experience of the Continuation War, fought between Finland and the Soviet Union from 1941 to 1944 (though a part of World War Two, it was also seen as a war for Finnish independence).  Linna specifically wanted to combat the notion of the stupidly loyal Finnish soldier, and thus portrayed men from all across the country, their inner thoughts, fears, and dreams, and their very, very real experiences on the front-lines of war, with many stories drawn from Linna’s own battle experiences.  Though the English translation of the book edited the harsh language that Linna used, it is still an eye-opening read that deserves a much wider audience.

3248379The HealerAntti Tuomainen’s dystopian crime thriller was an enormous hit in Finland, and this translation by Lola Rogers conveys the intensity of the story deftly, making for an engrossing, and sometimes genuinely unsettling read.  Set in a near future where climate change has led to Helsinki disappearing under flood waters, ravaged by diseases and torn about by social collapse, Tuomainen tells the story of Tapani Lehtinen, a poet who had resolved to remain in Helsinki, along with his journalist wife, Johnana.  But when Johnana disappears while hunting down a serial killer, Tapani risks everything to find her–and, in doing so, uncovers the deadly secrets his wife was hiding.  Secrets that tie her much closer to the murders than Tapani ever dreamed.  Antti Tuomainen has a very sparse writing style, making the emotions and revelations in this book feel like a sucker-punch.

3018967The Year of the Hare: Arto Paasilinna’s utterly charming story was first published in 1975, at the height of the “return to native” movement, but this modern-day-fable is just as readable and prescient today.  Helsinki journalist Kaarlo Vatanen accidentally hits a young hare on the road one night, but rather than driving on, he stops and tends to the hare (who survives, Mom!), ultimately abandoning his job, his wife, and his life to follow the hare into the wild.  Together, Kaarlo and the hare stick together, getting into a number of odd, surreal, and bizarrely funny adventures together, gradually wandering father and farther away from civilization.  Though some have said the translation is a little clunky in places, this is a gentle, charming story of two of the most unlikely friends you can imagine, on a journey of self-discovery and solitude that can be read in a few hours–but will brighten your entire day.

Until next time, dear readers…safe travels!

Out like a lion….?

A view from my window last night…

As I type, dear readers, the rain has at last ceased (for now, at least…), and the wind is howling outside; a suitable atmosphere indeed for those of us who love horror novels and ghost stories, but hardly a fit setting for those anxious for a bit of spring and a helping a sunshine.

Now, I fully understand that the rain is necessary, and I can accept that we don’t precisely live in an area that is guarantee nice–or even reliable–weather on a regular basis.  But even I, who am a lover of all things stormy and dreary, have to admit that the gloom of a rainy, windy spring can get a trifle wearing after a while.


Sunlight has a number of health benefits for the human body…most importantly, it causes the body to produce serotonin, which helps us feel alert, focused, and positive (and also help us sleep at night, when that serotonin gets converted to melatonin to make us sleepy when it’s dark).  This is part of the reason why, when the weather is cold and rainy, you want nothing more than to curl up until a comforter and ignore everyone…at least, I’m assuming other people feel that way.  It’s not just me, right?

Now, I’m not really about to propose that reading about sunshine can have the same effects as sitting in the sun, but I am arguing that it can make these rainy, windswept days a bit more entertaining.  Many of these books may also be beneficial if you are suffering from a case of literary wanderlust, and need a few moments’ of far-flung adventure in the safety of your own reading nook.  So come and take a literary adventure with us today.  You won’t even need to worry about sunscreen! *

*Unless you choose to read outside.  Then you might want to worry about sunscreen.  And a hat.

3562064The Sun is God: We’ve discussed Adrian McKinty’s Irish noir novels here before, but I was surprised and quite excited to hear that he’s also written an historic mystery, set in one of the most bizarre colonies to emerge from the Imperial Projects of the 19th Century.  In 1902, August Engelhardt, a German subject, arrived in the colony of German New Guinea, with the intention of starting his own colony of sun worshippers, who would live off the land and consume only coconuts.  Seriously.  They were to be known as cocovores.  The colony wasn’t really successful; within a few years, Engelhardt would be the only white inhabitant on the island of Kabakon, but he himself remained until is death in 1919.  There were stories of German troops ships passing by during World War One and slowing down to wave at him as they sailed by.  There were also stories of some mysterious deaths taking place on the island….and those stories create the backbone for McKinty’s tale, featuring the somewhat enigmatic former British military police officer Will Prior, who is called upon, as a neutral party, to investigate the goings-on at Kabakon, with some seriously unexpected results.  I’ve personally always found Engelhardt’s bizarre colony a fascinating story, so this blend of historic detail and murder mystery, set in one of the most remote places on earth, was an instant success.  Interestingly, McKinty actually visited Kabakon while writing this book, so the setting is a spot-on representation.

2300314 (1)The Comedians: Considered one of Graham Greene’s most overlooked masterpieces, this novel also focuses on a journey to a remote and distant world…this time, though the land is Haiti of the 1960, a country in the grip of the corrupt and ruthless Papa Doc Duvalier and the Tontons Macoute, his nightmare-inducing secret police.  The travelers are Brown a hotelier, Smith a wide-eyed American, and Jones, a delightfully sharp and yet tragic confidence man.  This book is part satire, part tragedy, set in a stunningly depicted world of voodoo superstition and very real-world dangers.  What always sets Green’s novels apart, however, is that he makes you feel like you have been on this journey with his characters, and shared their experiences, all the fear and the doubt and the wonder right along with them–without seeming to put any effort into the effect at all.  Thus, this story is the perfect escapist book, filled with a good deal of insight and introspection, and enough adventuring to leave you quite satiated.

2982511Swamplandia!: If it’s a bit more of a wild adventure you seek, then look no further than Karen Russell’s phantasmagoria of a novel that features twelve-year-old Ava Bigtree and her quest to save her family’s  Bigtree alligator wresting dynasty following her mother’s death and her father’s disappearance.  Set in the deepest heart of the Florida Everglades, Ava’s world is one where anything can happen–and very often does.  Her sister is in love with a creature known as The Dredgemen, who might just be an actual ghost, her brother has defected to their competitor, a slick show known as the World of Darkness, and Ava herself is forced to care for the Bigtree’s ninety-eight gators, and navigate a world of ancient lizards, mysterious tropical entities, and the utterly mysterious depths of human nature, in order to keep her family afloat.  Though outlandish in its premise, there are some very realistic, heartfelt themes running through Russell’s book that make it accessible to anyone (but especially to those of us who delight in the fantastic).  Plus, the seemingly depthless nature of her imagination means that nothing in this book is quite what it seems to be, creating a story that will snap you up and hold on tight…much like the Bigtree alligators themselves, come to think of it….