2

Armchair Travel: The USA (Part Two)

I am itching to get back into an aeroplane, and to be able to resume the exploring which I so adore. Until that can be a reality, however, I have started an Armchair Travel series here on the blog. There will loosely be one post, focused on a geographical location which I really want to visit, per month. Here is a collection of ten books set in three more US states which I can’t wait to visit.

Alaska

If You Lived Here I’d Know Your Name: News from Small-Town Alaska by Heather Lende

‘Tiny Haines, Alaska, is ninety miles north of Juneau, accessible mainly by water or air—and only when the weather is good. There’s no traffic light and no mail delivery; people can vanish without a trace and funerals are a community affair. Heather Lende posts both the obituaries and the social column for her local newspaper. If anyone knows the going-on in this close-knit town—from births to weddings to funerals—she does. Whether contemplating the mysterious death of eccentric Speedy Joe, who wore nothing but a red union suit and a hat he never took off, not even for a haircut; researching the details of a one-legged lady gold miner’s adventurous life; worrying about her son’s first goat-hunting expedition; observing the awe-inspiring Chilkat Bald Eagle Festival; or ice skating in the shadow of glacier-studded mountains, Lende’s warmhearted style brings us inside her small-town life. We meet her husband, Chip, who owns the local lumber yard; their five children; and a colorful assortment of quirky friends and neighbors, including aging hippies, salty fishermen, native Tlingit Indians, and volunteer undertakers—as well as the moose, eagles, sea lions, and bears with whom they share this wild and perilous land.’

Revolver by Marcus Sedgwick

‘It’s 1910. In a cabin north of the Arctic Circle, in a place murderously cold and desolate, Sig Andersson is alone. Except for the corpse of his father, frozen to death that morning when he fell through the ice on the lake. The cabin is silent, so silent, and then there’s a knock at the door. It’s a stranger, and as his extraordinary story of gold dust and gold lust unwinds, Sig’s thoughts turn more and more to his father’s prized possession, a Colt revolver, hidden in the storeroom. A revolver just waiting to be used…but should Sig use it, or not?’

Shopping for Porcupine: Life in Arctic Alaska by Seth Kantner

‘His story begins with the arrival of his father, Howard Kantner, to the remote Arctic of the 1950s and ends with him as a grown man settled in the same landscape. Through a series of moving essays and vivid photographs, ranging in subject from family histories to hunting stories, celebrations of people and places to a lament over a majestic wilderness rapidly disappearing, Shopping for Porcupine provides a compelling, intimate view of America’s last frontier — the same place that captivated so many readers of Ordinary Wolves.

Oregon

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

‘At twenty-two, Cheryl Strayed thought she had lost everything. In the wake of her mother’s death, her family scattered and her own marriage was soon destroyed. Four years later, with nothing more to lose, she made the most impulsive decision of her life. With no experience or training, driven only by blind will, she would hike more than a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State — and she would do it alone. Told with suspense and style, sparkling with warmth and humor, Wild powerfully captures the terrors and pleasures of one young woman forging ahead against all odds on a journey that maddened, strengthened, and ultimately healed her.’

Wild Life by Molly Gloss

‘It is the early 1900s and Charlotte Bridger Drummond is a thoroughly modern woman. The sole provider for her five young boys, Charlotte is a fiercely independent, freethinking woman of the West who fully embraces the scientific spirit that is sweeping the nation at the dawn of the industrial age. Thumbing her nose at convention, she dresses in men’s clothes, avoids housework whenever possible, and proudly supports her family by writing popular women’s adventure stories. Ready to show off her knowledge of the local flora and fauna and have an adventure of her own, Charlotte joins a search party for a child who has disappeared in the deepwood wilderness on the border between Oregon and Washington. But when she gets lost herself, she is thrust into a mysterious world that not only tests her courage but challenges her entire concept of reality Starving and half dead from exposure, Charlotte is rescued by a band of elusive, quasi-human beasts. As she becomes a part of the creatures’ extended family, Charlotte is forced to reconsider her previous notions about the differences between animals and humans, men and women, and above all, between wilderness and civilization Beautifully written and historically accurate, “Wild Life” is a highly original tale set at the very edge of civilization, where one woman takes on the untamed world of nature, and in the process, discovers much about the deepest recesses of her very own human nature. Putting a surprising, revitalizing, feminine spin on the classic legend of Tarzan and other wildman sagas, award-winning novelist Molly Gloss delivers a rich portrait of America’s northwestern frontier at the start of the twentieth century.’

Glaciers by Alexis M. Smith

‘Isabel is a single, twentysomething thrift-store shopper and collector of remnants, things cast off or left behind by others. Glaciers follows Isabel through a day in her life in which work with damaged books in the basement of a library, unrequited love for the former soldier who fixes her computer, and dreams of the perfect vintage dress move over a backdrop of deteriorating urban architecture and the imminent loss of the glaciers she knew as a young girl in Alaska. Glaciers unfolds internally, the action shaped by Isabel’s sense of history, memory, and place, recalling the work of writers such as Jean Rhys, Marguerite Duras, and Virginia Woolf. For Isabel, the fleeting moments of one day can reveal an entire life. While she contemplates loss and the intricate fissures it creates in our lives, she accumulates the stories—the remnants—of those around her and she begins to tell her own story.’

The Girl Who Fell From the Sky by Heidi W. Durrow

‘This debut novel tells the story of Rachel, the daughter of a Danish mother and a black G.I. who becomes the sole survivor of a family tragedy. With her strict African American grandmother as her new guardian, Rachel moves to a mostly black community, where her light brown skin, blue eyes, and beauty bring mixed attention her way. Growing up in the 1980s, she learns to swallow her overwhelming grief and confronts her identity as a biracial young woman in a world that wants to see her as either black or white. In the tradition of Jamaica Kincaid’s Annie John and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, here is a portrait of a young girl – and society’s ideas of race, class, and beauty.’

Maine

The Cider House Rules by John Irving

‘Raised from birth in the orphanage at St. Cloud’s, Maine, Homer Wells has become the protege of Dr. Wilbur Larch, its physician and director. There Dr. Larch cares for the troubled mothers who seek his help, either by delivering and taking in their unwanted babies or by performing illegal abortions. Meticulously trained by Dr. Larch, Homer assists in the former, but draws the line at the latter. Then a young man brings his beautiful fiancee to Dr. Larch for an abortion, and everything about the couple beckons Homer to the wide world outside the orphanage.’

Cost by Roxana Robinson

‘When Julia Lambert, an art professor, settles into her idyllic Maine house for the summer, she plans to spend the time tending her fragile relationships with her father, a repressive neurosurgeon, and her gentle mother, who is descending into Alzheimer’s. But a shattering revelation intrudes: Julia’s son Jack has spiraled into heroin addiction. In an attempt to save him, Julia marshals help from her looseknit clan: elderly parents; remarried ex-husband; removed sister; and combative eldest son. Ultimately, heroin courses through the characters’ lives with an impersonal and devastating energy, sweeping the family into a world in which deceit, crime, and fear are part of daily life.’

Abide with Me by Elizabeth Strout

‘In her luminous and long-awaited novel, bestselling author Elizabeth Strout welcomes readers back to the archetypal, lovely landscape of northern New England, where the events of her first novel, Amy and Isabelle, unfolded. In the late 1950s, in the small town of West Annett, Maine, a minister struggles to regain his calling, his family, and his happiness in the wake of profound loss. At the same time, the community he has served so charismatically must come to terms with its own strengths and failings—faith and hypocrisy, loyalty and abandonment—when a dark secret is revealed. Tyler Caskey has come to love West Annett, “just up the road” from where he was born. The short, brilliant summers and the sharp, piercing winters fill him with awe—as does his congregation, full of good people who seek his guidance and listen earnestly as he preaches. But after suffering a terrible loss, Tyler finds it hard to return to himself as he once was. He hasn’t had The Feeling—that God is all around him, in the beauty of the world—for quite some time. He struggles to find the right words in his sermons and in his conversations with those facing crises of their own, and to bring his five-year-old daughter, Katherine, out of the silence she has observed in the wake of the family’s tragedy. A congregation that had once been patient and kind during Tyler’s grief now questions his leadership and propriety. In the kitchens, classrooms, offices, and stores of the village, anger and gossip have started to swirl. And in Tyler’s darkest hour, a startling discovery will test his congregation’ s humanity—and his own will to endure the kinds of trials that sooner or later test us all. In prose incandescent and artful, Elizabeth Strout draws readers into the details of ordinary life in a way that makes it extraordinary. All is considered—life, love, God, and community—within these pages, and all is made new by this writer’s boundless compassion and graceful prose.’

Have you read any of these? Where are you wanting to visit when we can all travel safely again?

6

Armchair Travel: The USA (Part One)

I have been lucky enough to visit the United States on a few occasions, but given the sheer vastness of the country, I’m sure that there will always be states and cities which I really want to visit! I have collected together books from two states here, all of which I really, really want to go to, as soon as it’s safe. Part Two of this post will follow next month; there were just far too many books to choose from!

Georgia

Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones

‘With the opening line of Silver Sparrow, “My father, James Witherspoon is a bigamist,” Tayari Jones unveils a breathtaking story about a man’s deception, a family’s complicity, and the teenage girls caught in the middle. Set in a middle-class neighborhood in Atlanta in the 1980s, the novel revolves around James Witherspoon’s families– the public one and the secret one. When the daughters from each family meet and form a friendship, only one of them knows they are sisters. It is a relationship destined to explode when secrets are revealed and illusions shattered. As Jones explores the backstories of her rich and flawed characters, she also reveals the joy, and the destruction, they brought to each other’s lives. At the heart of it all are the two girls whose lives are at stake, and like the best writers, Jones portrays the fragility of her characers with raw authenticity as they seek love, demand attention, and try to imagine themselves as women.’

Driving Miss Daisy by Alfred Uhry

‘The place is the Deep South, the time 1948, just prior to the civil rights movement. Having recently demolished another car, Daisy Wertham, a rich, sharp-tongued Jewish widow of seventy-two, is informed by her son, Boolie, that henceforth she must rely on the services of a chauffeur. The person he hires for the job is a thoughtful, unemployed black man, Hoke, whom Miss Daisy immediately regards with disdain and who, in turn, is not impressed with his employer’s patronizing tone and, he believes, her latent prejudice. But, in a series of absorbing scenes spanning twenty-five years, the two, despite their mutual differences, grow ever closer to, and more dependent on, each other, until, eventually, they become almost a couple. Slowly and steadily the dignified, good-natured Hoke breaks down the stern defenses of the ornery old lady, as she teaches him to read and write and, in a gesture of good will and shared concern, invites him to join her at a banquet in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. As the play ends Hoke has a final visit with Miss Daisy, now ninety-seven and confined to a nursing home, and while it is evident that a vestige of her fierce independence and sense of position still remain, it is also movingly clear that they have both come to realize they have more in common than they ever believed possible-and that times and circumstances would ever allow them to publicly admit.’

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt

‘A sublime and seductive reading experience. Brilliantly conceived and masterfully written, this enormously engaging portrait of a most beguiling Southern city has become a modern classic. Shots rang out in Savannah’s grandest mansion in the misty, early morning hours of May 2, 1981. Was it murder or self-defense? For nearly a decade, the shooting and its aftermath reverberated throughout this hauntingly beautiful city of moss-hung oaks and shaded squares. John Berendt’s sharply observed, suspenseful, and witty narrative reads like a thoroughly engrossing novel, and yet it is a work of nonfiction. Berendt skillfully interweaves a hugely entertaining first-person account of life in this isolated remnant of the Old South with the unpredictable twists and turns of a landmark murder case. It is a spellbinding story peopled by a gallery of remarkable characters: the well-bred society ladies of the Married Woman’s Card Club; the turbulent young redneck gigolo; the hapless recluse who owns a bottle of poison so powerful it could kill every man, woman, and child in Savannah; the aging and profane Southern belle who is the “soul of pampered self-absorption”; the uproariously funny black drag queen; the acerbic and arrogant antiques dealer; the sweet-talking, piano-playing con artist; young blacks dancing the minuet at the black debutante ball; and Minerva, the voodoo priestess who works her magic in the graveyard at midnight. These and other Savannahians act as a Greek chorus, with Berendt revealing the alliances, hostilities, and intrigues that thrive in a town where everyone knows everyone else.’

Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata

kira-kira (kee ra kee ra): glittering; shining Glittering. That’s how Katie Takeshima’s sister, Lynn, makes everything seem. The sky is kira-kira because its color is deep but see-through at the same time. The sea is kira-kira for the same reason and so are people’s eyes. When Katie and her family move from a Japanese community in Iowa to the Deep South of Georgia, it’s Lynn who explains to her why people stop on the street to stare, and it’s Lynn who, with her special way of viewing the world, teaches Katie to look beyond tomorrow, but when Lynn becomes desperately ill, and the whole family begins to fall apart, it is up to Katie to find a way to remind them all that there is always something glittering — kira-kira — in the future.’

Cane by Jean Toomer

‘First published in 1923, Jean Toomer’s Cane is an innovative literary work-part drama, part poetry, part fiction-powerfully evoking black life in the South. Rich in imagery, Toomer’s impressionistic, sometimes surrealistic sketches of Southern rural and urban life are permeated by visions of smoke, sugarcane, dusk, and fire; the northern world is pictured as a harsher reality of asphalt streets. This iconic work of American literature is published with a new afterword by Rudolph Byrd of Emory University and Henry Louis Gates Jr. of Harvard University, who provide groundbreaking biographical information on Toomer, place his writing within the context of American modernism and the Harlem Renaissance, and examine his shifting claims about his own race and his pioneering critique of race as a scientific or biological concept.’

Washington

The Light on the Islands: Tales of a Lighthouse Keeper’s Family in the San Juan Islands by Helen Glidden

‘Readers can once again enjoy Helene Glidden’s classic The Light on the Island, as this 50th Anniversary Edition retells the touching story of a young girl growing up on Patos Island in the San Archipelago of Washington State. Her parents raised thirteen children while her father served as the Patos Island lighthouse keeper from 1905 – 1913. Helene reminisces about the adventure and heartbreak experienced on a beautiful but remote island where smugglers, old timers, and “God” weave in and out of their lives.’

Freaky Green Eyes by Joyce Carol Oates

‘Sometimes Franky Pierson has a hard time dealing with life. Like when her parents separate and her mother vanishes, Franky wants to believe that her mom has simply pulled a disappearing act. Yet deep within herself, a secret part of her she calls Freaky Green Eyes knows that something is terribly wrong. And only Freaky can open Franky’s eyes to the truth.’

A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from my Kitchen Table by Molly Wizenberg

‘When Molly Wizenberg’s father died of cancer, everyone told her to go easy on herself, to hold off on making any major decisions for a while. But when she tried going back to her apartment in Seattle and returning to graduate school, she knew it wasn’t possible to resume life as though nothing had happened. So she went to Paris, a city that held vivid memories of a childhood trip with her father, of early morning walks on the cobbled streets of the Latin Quarter and the taste of her first pain au chocolat. She was supposed to be doing research for her dissertation, but more often, she found herself peering through the windows of chocolate shops, trekking across town to try a new pâtisserie, or tasting cheeses at outdoor markets, until one evening when she sat in the Luxembourg Gardens reading cookbooks until it was too dark to see, she realized that her heart was not in her studies but in the kitchen. At first, it wasn’t clear where this epiphany might lead. Like her long letters home describing the details of every meal and market, Molly’s blog Orangette started out merely as a pleasant pastime. But it wasn’t long before her writing and recipes developed an international following. Every week, devoted readers logged on to find out what Molly was cooking, eating, reading, and thinking, and it seemed she had finally found her passion. But the story wasn’t over: one reader in particular, a curly-haired, food-loving composer from New York, found himself enchanted by the redhead in Seattle, and their email correspondence blossomed into a long-distance romance. In A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table, Molly Wizenberg recounts a life with the kitchen at its center. From her mother’s pound cake, a staple of summer picnics during her childhood in Oklahoma, to the eggs she cooked for her father during the weeks before his death, food and memories are intimately entwined.’

Steal the North by Heather Brittain Bergstrom

‘Vocally graceful and fearlessly intimate, Steal The North, Heather Brittain Bergstrom’s remarkable debut novel, is a strikingly beautiful portrait of modern identity, faith, family, and love in all its forms. Emmy Nolan is a sheltered and introverted sixteen-year-old living in Sacramento with her mom, Kate, when a phone call comes from an aunt she never knew existed. Fifteen years earlier, Kate had abandoned her only sibling, Beth, fleeing their tiny eastern Washington town and the fundamentalist Baptist church that had condemned her as a whore. Beth, who’s pregnant for what she knows is the last time after countless miscarriages, believes her only hope to delivering the baby is Emmy’s participation in a faith healing ceremony. Emmy reluctantly goes. Despite uncovering her mom’s desperate and painful past, she soon finds she has come home–immediately developing a strong bond with her aunt Beth and feeling destined to the rugged landscape. Then Emmy meets Reuben Tonasket, the Native American boy who lives next door. Though passion-filled and resilient, their love story is eerily mirrorThed by the generation before them, who fear that their own mistakes are doomed to repeat themselves in Emmy and Reuben. This is a marvelously imaginative and deeply felt debut, one whose characters live at nearly intolerable levels of vulnerability. Yet, as fragile as they may seem, Bergstrom has imbued them with a tremendous inner strength, proving that the question of home is a spiritual one, that getting over the past is hope for the future, and that the bond between family is truly unbreakable.’

The Last Town on Earth by Thomas Mullen

‘Set against the backdrop of one of the most virulent epidemics that America ever experienced-the 1918 flu epidemic-Thomas Mullen’s powerful, sweeping first novel is a tale of morality in a time of upheaval. Deep in the mist-shrouded forests of the Pacific Northwest is a small mill town called Commonwealth, conceived as a haven for workers weary of exploitation. For Philip Worthy, the adopted son of the town’s founder, it is a haven in another sense-as the first place in his life he’s had a loving family to call his own. And yet, the ideals that define this outpost are being threatened from all sides. A world war is raging, and with the fear of spies rampant, the loyalty of all Americans is coming under scrutiny. Meanwhile, another shadow has fallen across the region in the form of a deadly illness striking down vast swaths of surrounding communities. When Commonwealth votes to quarantine itself against contagion, guards are posted at the single road leading in and out of town, and Philip Worthy is among them. He will be unlucky enough to be on duty when a cold, hungry, tired-and apparently ill-soldier presents himself at the town’s doorstep begging for sanctuary. The encounter that ensues, and the shots that are fired, will have deafening reverberations throughout Commonwealth, escalating until every human value-love, patriotism, community, family, friendship-not to mention the town’s very survival, is imperiled. Inspired by a little-known historical footnote regarding towns that quarantined themselves during the 1918 epidemic, “The Last Town on Earth” is a remarkably moving and accomplished debut.’

5

Armchair Travelling: Africa

I am a keen traveller in normal times, and am missing the freedom in planning trips, and exploring new places with my boyfriend. At present, like almost everyone else around the world, my only travelling is occurring through books, and watching foreign language films and Scandi-crime dramas on Netflix.

I created the first of the posts in this new series in February, alerting you to eight books set in Korea which I am keen to read, or which I count amongst my favourites. For my second post, I have selected three African countries, merely because I could not find a great deal of books set in each location. My birthday trip to Morocco was cancelled last year, and we could not go ahead with our planned safari to The Gambia and Senegal either; therefore, these are my choices.

The Gambia

Four Guineas by Elspeth Huxley

‘This account of Elspeth Huxley’s travels in Gambia, Sierra Leone, the Gold Coast and Nigeria gilds the Dark Continent–not because the author romanticizes it, but because she clarifies it…its history, superstitions and tribal ways, its beauty and power, its great contrasts and complexities. But this is no postcard and Huxley is not diverted by the exotic scenery and colorful natives. Instead, she pictures a region striving to maintain its heritage while finding a future. It’s like going ahead with one foot on the brake.’

A Season in Sinji by J.L. Carr

A Season in Sinji recreates life on a wartime RAF flying boat station in an African backwater. The dialogue evokes a wide range of characters, and in the bizarre cricket match which acts as a catharsis to the novel’s mounting passions, human dramas and irony are portrayed.’

Senegal

Ambiguous Adventure by Cheikh Hamidou Kane

‘Hailed by Chinua Achebe as one of the greatest African novels ever written, this long-unavailable classic tells the tale of young Samba Diallo, a devout pupil in a Koranic school in Senegal whose parents send him to Paris to study philosophy. But unknown to Samba, it is a desperate attempt by his parents to better understand the French colonial forces transforming their traditional way of life. Instead, for Samba, it seems an exciting adventure, and once in France he excels at his new studies and is delighted by his new “marvelous comprehension and total communion” with the Western world. Soon, though, he finds himself torn between the materialistic secularism and isolation of French civilization and the deeper spiritual influences of his homeland. As Samba puts it: “I have become the two.” Written in an elegant, lyrical prose, Ambiguous Adventure is a masterful expression of the immigrant experience and the repercussions of colonialism, and a great work of literature about the uneasy relationship between Islamic Africa and the West—a relationship more important today than ever before.’

Three Strong Women by Marie NDiaye

‘In this new novel, the first by a black woman ever to win the coveted Prix Goncourt, Marie NDiaye creates a luminous narrative triptych as harrowing as it is beautiful. This is the story of three women who say no: Norah, a French-born lawyer who finds herself in Senegal, summoned by her estranged, tyrannical father to save another victim of his paternity; Fanta, who leaves a modest but contented life as a teacher in Dakar to follow her white boyfriend back to France, where his delusional depression and sense of failure poison everything; and Khady, a penniless widow put out by her husband’s family with nothing but the name of a distant cousin (the aforementioned Fanta) who lives in France, a place Khady can scarcely conceive of but toward which she must now take desperate flight. With lyrical intensity, Marie NDiaye masterfully evokes the relentless denial of dignity, to say nothing of happiness, in these lives caught between Africa and Europe. We see with stunning emotional exactitude how ordinary women discover unimagined reserves of strength, even as their humanity is chipped away. Three Strong Women admits us to an immigrant experience rarely if ever examined in fiction, but even more into the depths of the suffering heart.’

Morocco

Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits by Laila Lalami

‘Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits evokes the grit and enduring grace that is modern Morocco. As four Moroccans illegally cross the Strait of Gibraltar in an inflatable boat headed for Spain, author Laila Lalami asks, What has driven them to risk their lives? And will the rewards prove to be worth the danger? There’s Murad, a gentle, unemployed man who’s been reduced to hustling tourists around Tangier; Halima, who’s fleeing her drunken husband and the slums of Casablanca; Aziz, who must leave behind his devoted wife in hope of securing work in Spain; and Faten, a student and religious fanatic whose faith is at odds with an influential man determined to destroy her future. Sensitively written with beauty and boldness, this is a gripping book about what propels people to risk their lives in search of a better future.’

A House in Fez: Building a Life in the Ancient Heart of Morocco by Suzanna Clarke

‘The Medina — the Old City — of Fez is the best-preserved, medieval walled city in the world. Inside this vibrant Moroccan community, internet cafes and mobile phones coexist with a maze of donkey-trod alleyways, thousand-year-old sewer systems, and Arab-style houses, gorgeous with intricate, if often shabby, mosaic work. While vacationing in Morocco, Suzanna Clarke and her husband, Sandy, are inspired to buy a dilapidated, centuries-old riad in Fez with the aim of restoring it to its original splendor, using only traditional craftsmen and handmade materials. So begins a remarkable adventure that is bewildering, at times hilarious, and ultimately immensely rewarding. A House in Fez chronicles their meticulous restoration, but it is also a journey into Moroccan customs and lore and a window into the lives of its people as friendships blossom. When the riad is finally returned to its former glory, Suzanna finds she has not just restored an old house, but also her soul.’

Destination Unknown by Agatha Christie

‘In Agatha Christie’s gripping international thriller Destination Unknown, a woman at the end of her rope chooses a more exciting way to die when she embarks upon an almost certain suicide mission to find a missing scientist. When a number of leading scientists disappear without a trace, concern grows within the international intelligence community. And the one woman who appears to hold the key to the mystery is dying from injuries sustained in a plane crash. Meanwhile, in a Casablanca hotel room, Hilary Craven prepares to take her own life. But her suicide attempt is about to be interrupted by a man who will offer her an altogether more thrilling way to die…’

Have you read any of these books? Where have you been travelling to through literature lately? If you have any countries which you’re itching to travel to, and wish me to include in this series, please just let me know!

4

Armchair Travelling: Korea

My boyfriend and I had planned to travel to South Korea last year; evidently it did not happen.  Like almost everyone else, the majority of my travelling since March 2020 has been through the medium of books.  I am so keen to go to South Korea – I am obsessed by its food, its films, its fashion – but until I can safely step on a plane and explore properly, I thought I would gather together some books in case anyone wishes to join me in armchair travelling.  I have read the first of these, and count it as one of my favourite novels, but the others are high on my wishlist.

1. Please Look After Mother by Kyung-Sook Shin ***** (review here) 9720572
When sixty-nine-year-old So-nyo is separated from her husband among the crowds of the Seoul subway station, her family begins a desperate search to find her. Yet as long-held secrets and private sorrows begin to reveal themselves, they are forced to wonder: how well did they actually know the woman they called Mom?  Told through the piercing voices and urgent perspectives of a daughter, son, husband, and mother, Please Look After Mom is at once an authentic picture of contemporary life in Korea and a universal story of family love.

6132182. When My Name Was Keoko by Linda Sue Park
Sun-hee and her older brother Tae-yul are proud of their Korean heritage. Yet they live their lives under Japanese occupation. All students must read and write in Japanese and no one can fly the Korean flag. Hardest of all is when the Japanese Emperor forces all Koreans to take Japanese names. Sun-hee and Tae-yul become Keoko and Nobuo. Korea is torn apart by their Japanese invaders during World War II. Everyone must help with war preparations, but it doesn’t mean they are willing to defend Japan. Tae-yul is about to risk his life to help his family, while Sun-hee stays home guarding life-and-death secrets.

3. The Calligrapher’s Daughter by Eugenia Kim 6400109
In early-twentieth-century Korea, Najin Han, the privileged daughter of a calligrapher, longs to choose her own destiny. Smart and headstrong, she is encouraged by her mother—but her stern father is determined to maintain tradition, especially as the Japanese steadily gain control of his beloved country. When he seeks to marry Najin into an aristocratic family, her mother defies generations of obedient wives and instead sends her to serve in the king’s court as a companion to a young princess. But the king is soon assassinated, and the centuries-old dynastic culture comes to its end.  In the shadow of the dying monarchy, Najin begins a journey through increasing oppression that will forever change her world. As she desperately seeks to continue her education, will the unexpected love she finds along the way be enough to sustain her through the violence and subjugation her country continues to face? Spanning thirty years, The Calligrapher’s Daughter is a richly drawn novel in the tradition of Lisa See and Amy Tan about a country torn between ancient customs and modern possibilities, a family ultimately united by love, and a woman who never gives up her search for freedom.

299837114. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
Pachinko follows one Korean family through the generations, beginning in early 1900s Korea with Sunja, the prized daughter of a poor yet proud family, whose unplanned pregnancy threatens to shame them all. Deserted by her lover, Sunja is saved when a young tubercular minister offers to marry and bring her to Japan.  So begins a sweeping saga of an exceptional family in exile from its homeland and caught in the indifferent arc of history. Through desperate struggles and hard-won triumphs, its members are bound together by deep roots as they face enduring questions of faith, family, and identity.

5. I Have the Right to Destroy Myself by Young-Ha Kim 797192
A spectral, nameless narrator haunts the lost and wounded of big-city Seoul, suggesting solace in suicide. Wandering through the bright lights of their high-urban existence, C and K are brothers who fall in love with the same woman – Se-yeon. As their lives intersect, they tear at each other in a struggle to find connection in their fast-paced, atomized world.  Dreamlike and cinematic, I Have the Right to Destroy Myself brilliantly affirms Young-ha Kim as Korea’s leading young literary master.

175915606. My Son’s Girlfriend by Mi-Kyung Jung
At once an ironic portrayal of contemporary Korea and an intimate exploration of heartache, alienation, and nostalgia, this collection of seven short stories has earned the author widespread critical acclaim.

7. The Guest by Hwang Sok-Yong 1447640
Based on actual events, The Guest is a profound portrait of a divided people haunted by a painful past, and a generation’s search for reconciliation.  During the Korean War, Hwanghae Province in North Korea was the setting of a gruesome fifty-two day massacre. In an act of collective amnesia the atrocities were attributed to American military, but in truth they resulted from malicious battling between Christian and Communist Koreans. Forty years later, Ryu Yosop, a minister living in America returns to his home village, where his older brother once played a notorious role in the bloodshed. Besieged by vivid memories and visited by the troubled spirits of the deceased, Yosop must face the survivors of the tragedy and lay his brother’s soul to rest.  Faulkner-like in its intense interweaving narratives, The Guest is a daring and ambitious novel from a major figure in world literature.

175915728. No One Writes Back by Eun-Jin Jang
Communication—or the lack thereof—is the subject of this sly update of the picaresque novel. No One Writes Back is the story of a young man who leaves home with only his blind dog, an MP3 player, and a book, traveling aimlessly for three years, from motel to motel, meeting people on the road. Rather than learn the names of his fellow travelers—or even invent nicknames for them—he assigns them numbers. There’s 239, who once dreamed of being a poet, but who now only reads her poems to a friend in a coma; there’s 109, who rides trains endlessly because of a broken heart; and 32, who’s already decided to commit suicide. The narrator writes letters to these men and women in the hope that he can console them in their various miseries, as well as keep a record of his own experiences: “A letter is like a journal entry for me, except that it gets sent to other people.” No one writes back, of course, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t some hope that one of them will, someday…

Have you read any of these?  Which have piqued your interest?  I am also keen to make this ‘Armchair Travelling’ a mini series on the blog, so please let me know if you’d like recommendations from a particular country.