Author, Book review, Colm Tóibín, Non-fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting, Spain, travel

‘Homage to Barcelona’ by Colm Tóibín

Non-fiction – paperback; Picador; 240 pages; 2010.

Perhaps it’s because I grew up in Australia, right at the bottom of the world, so removed from everywhere else, that I quickly developed a desire to travel and to explore and to discover new places and cultures. As a child and teenager I could only do it through books.

Later, as an undergrad, my interest in travel was piqued even further by classes I took in the history of human civilisation and the great gardens and landscapes of the world. When I was about 21 I distinctly remember aching to visit Italy and Spain and Rome and New York and England to see all the amazing places I had studied and learned about.

Of course, as a cash-strapped student, and later as a new graduate struggling to find a job because Australia was in the grip of an economic recession, I had to satisfy my wanderlust through books. That’s when I went through a phase of reading travelogues — Eric Newby’s Round Ireland in Low Gear and Robin Hanbury-Tenison’s Worlds Apart: An Explorer’s Life are the two that stick in the mind the most.

But those kinds of books never really did it for me. If I’m honest, they bored me. It was a genre I quickly abandoned.

It wasn’t until I  left Australia for the first time, aged 29, that I got to explore the Northern Hemisphere. During my 30s and 40s I learned a valuable lesson: those travelogues don’t really resonate with me unless I’ve already visited the places that are mentioned in the book, or, better still, if I’m in-situ at the time of reading.

Which is a long-winded way of getting around to saying what I really wanted to say: that reading Colm Tóibín’s travelogue-cum-memoir Barcelona while I was actually in Barcelona was an immeasurably pleasurable experience.

In this book, the mere mention of the quiet, dark alleyways of the Gothic Quarter, which I had explored thoroughly for an entire afternoon, or the descriptions of Plaça Reial, where I’d treated myself to a glass of white Rioja and a plate of deep-fried anchovies while watching passersby, felt all the more special because I had experienced them first hand.

Plaça Reial is a large, exotic-looking square, that is lined with restaurants and cafes, the perfect place to people watch

 

Bishops Bridge, in the Gothic Quarter, looks medieval but was built in 1928 to match the style of the two Gothic buildings it links together

 

The chapter on Antoni Gaudí — A Dream of Gaudí — gave me a greater understanding and appreciation for the man’s amazing architectural achievements, the Sagrada Família (his great unfinished Catholic cathedral) and Casa Milà (aka La Pedrera or the “stone quarry”), both of which I’d visited and marvelled over, my jaw hanging open with the sheer wonder and beauty of them.

The Sagrada Família, which has been under construction since 1882 and isn’t expected to be completed until 2032!

 

Casa Milà, built in the early part of the 20th century, was the last private residence designed by Gaudi

 

But the book is much more than a tourist guide to the city. It’s a comprehensive look at Barcelona’s history, its food and culture, its nightlife, its artistic achievements and its political ups and downs. Tóibín’s lyrical writing, which I know so well from his novels (you can see reviews of them here), is only equalled by the subject matter he covers such as the artists (Picasso, Miró, Dali) and the urban designers and architects that shaped the city.

It’s written with all the insight of someone who has lived and breathed the city (Tóibín lived there from 1975 — “two months before the death of Franco” — until 1978, and has been a frequent visitor ever since.)

Reading it now, almost 30 years later after it was first published in 1990 (just as Barcelona was gearing up to host the Olympic Games), some of it appears to be a little out of date. For instance, Plaça Reial, he writes, is best avoided because it was “reputed to be the source of all the crime in the city centre, the place where the handbag-snatchers and the dope dealers hang out” and he shares similar advice about the rest of the Barri Gòtic, which has clearly been much cleaned up crime-wise since then.

But this hardly seems to matter, for Barcelona is a wonderful book that celebrates a wonderful European city. It’s a beguiling portrait of a sometimes troubled place, one that continues to forge — and fight for — its own Catalan identity. And it’s rich with personal insights and anecdotes, almost as if Tóibín is your own private tour guide. What more could you want from a travelogue?

The photographs in this post were taken during my solo trip to Barcelona on 19-22 March 2019. There are a lot more on my Instagram account if you fancy scrolling back through my timeline.

Australia, Book review, Cal Flyn, History, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Scotland, Setting, travel, William Collins

‘Thicker Than Water: History, Secrets and Guilt: A Memoir’ by Cal Flyn

Thicker than water by Cal Flyn

Non-fiction – hardcover; William Collins; 224 pages; 2016. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Cal Flyn’s Thicker Than Water is a remarkable — and readable — travelogue-cum-historical-biography about her great-great-great uncle, Angus McMillan, a Scotsman who fled the Highland Clearances and emigrated to Australia in 1837.

McMillan, a proud and pious man, was regarded as the “Father of Gippsland’, having opened up the rugged south-east of what is now the state of Victoria — and where, I must point out, I am from, hence my interest in the book.

Up until quite recently, history has been kind to McMillan. He has plaques and cairns recording his achievements, streets are named after him, the rural education centre in my home town is called the McMillan campus. His entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography describes him as “courageous, strong and generous, with a great love for his adopted country”, a man who “took a sympathetic interest in the welfare of the Aborigines”.

But McMillan lead another less honourable life that history has failed to record. He was a murderer — a mass murderer — responsible for the deaths of hundreds of aboriginals massacred at places now largely known by horrible names, such as Slaughterhouse Gully, Butchers Creek and Skull Creek. Unsurprisingly, he has also come to be known as the “Butcher of Gippsland”.

A journey into the heart of darkness

Thicker Than Water  is not a standard biography of a historical figure. Flyn writes in an engaging way by taking us on her journey — both figuratively and literally — to discover the story behind her ancestor and his achievements. To her credit, she does not shy away from the harsh realities of what she unearths along the way.

Indeed, her initial pride in McMillan’s discovery of Gippsland is soon usurped by a growing sense of unease when she stumbles upon a 2005 news story:

A Scottish pioneer revered as one of Australia’s foremost explorers faces being erased from maps amid accusations that he was responsible for the cold-blooded murder of hundreds of aborigines.

She later learns that the Gunai people, who had inhabited Gippsland for 20,000 years, were decimated by McMillan and his “Highland Brigade”. At the end of a decade-long “war of attrition”, there were just 126 Gunai left, down from about 1,800.

Flyn, shocked and ashamed by these appalling acts (it is believed there were more than a dozen massacres all up), feels the need to atone for her ancestor’s sins. And so she packs in her newspaper job, bids farewell to her boyfriend, and heads Down Under to meet with local historians and Gunai elders in a bid to put things right.

Atoning for past sins

The narrative follows Flyn’s travels from the Highlands to Australia, weaving in excerpts from McMillan’s own diaries and including facts and snippets about him that she unearths along the way. Through this deftly woven narrative that mixes personal reflection with detective-like journalistic research, she’s able to build up a fascinating portrait of a man — hardworking and civic-minded, but also prone to bitterness and jealousy, especially with his rival, the Polish explorer Pawel Strzelecki, who, from my own childhood was always held in higher regard than McMillan.

What results is a highly entertaining narrative that feels more like a novel than a dull biography. (Some of the passages describing her travels into the Gippsland bush are full of beautiful, descriptive language about the plants and landscapes she encounters; I’d like to see Flyn tackle a nature book next, I think it’d be brilliant.)

But Thicker Than Water also feels like a deeply personal story, for on almost every page you can feel Flyn’s own moral compass going slightly haywire: how on earth can she ever come to terms with McMillan’s horrendous deeds knowing that she’s related to him? Her shame and anguish over this is palpable. The book does present an interesting dilemma, for at what point do you atone for the sins of your ancestors? And what happens if they committed something so atrocious and so appalling that it turns your stomach to think about? Is it really your responsibility to apologise?

I’m not sure Flyn found any answers — perhaps because there aren’t any. Apologies are fleeting acts; they do not address the ongoing inequality that so many indigenous people face on a day-to-day basis. But in giving voice to McMillan’s extraordinary history, she has at least helped to paint a more truthful picture of the man that history has for so long lauded. And in telling that story the door opens to allow similar ones to be recorded that have not yet been told.

And finally…

Unfortunately, I can’t include Thicker Than Water in my #ReadingAustralia2016 project because the author is Scottish. But the story is so focused on Australian history and so revealing of an aspect that has, for too long, been ignored or rarely spoken about that I couldn’t resist reading it.

Please note it hasn’t been published in the US or Canada, but secondhand copies are widely available.

Australia, Author, Book review, Finch Publishing, Lisa Nops, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, Sri Lanka, travel, UAE

‘My Life in a Pea Soup’ by Lisa Nops

My-life-in-a-pea-soup

Non-fiction – Kindle edition; Finch Publishing; 240 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I have to confess that true stories about motherhood and raising children aren’t normally my cup of tea, so it may come as some surprise that I chose to read and review Lisa Nops’ My Life in a Pea Soup when the publisher pitched it to me. However, I quite like memoirs written by ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances, and I also like tales about expats, and this book ticked both those boxes.

Planned parenthood

The memoir is written by Lisa Nops, an Australian teacher who married Michael, an English civil engineer, in 1989. Michael’s job often involved working in exotic locations, so at various times the couple have lived in Australia, New Zealand, France, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Bahrain.

When they decided to start a family Lisa was unable to fall pregnant, so four rounds of IVF treatment ensued, with no success. Then, in November 1997, she fell pregnant naturally and their daughter, Sally, was born in 1998.

Initially, Sally appeared to be a normal baby, albeit with an extremely quiet disposition, “inclined to sleep over and above doing anything else, not just at night but during the day as well”. But as time progressed Sally failed to meet ordinary developmental milestones, such as crawling, walking and speaking, was plagued by various illnesses, including ear infections, was prone to “staring intensely at objects and shadows” and began to flap her hands uncontrollably when excited.

When she was three, she was diagnosed with an unknown “neurological problem” that would require intensive speech, language and occupational therapy. There was the very real possibility that she would never learn to speak in sentences. Eventually she was diagnosed as autistic.

Search for a diagnosis

The book charts Lisa’s struggle to find out what was wrong with Sally, a journey that spanned several years — and continents. It was complicated by two factors: Lisa’s inability to fully accept that Sally’s slow development was anything other than her just being slow, and the family’s constant moving from one country to another.

Even when Lisa moved back to her home town of Canberra, Australia, to give Sally a better chance of medical care, things weren’t always straightforward. It certainly didn’t help that Michael remained behind in Sri Lanka to continue working, leaving Lisa to grapple with raising a child with special needs alone.

Once a proper diagnosis was made, it allowed the couple to become more focused on getting the right care and attention for Sally. But this was only half the battle. It did not alter the fact that they were “stuck” in a life they had never planned when they had decided to become parents. Lisa uses the analogy of planning a dream trip to Italy only to end up in Holland by accident:

It’s a different county to the one they had expected, where the countryside is flat and the people speak with guttural inflections. For a while they resent their holiday there; it wasn’t what they had planned and everyone in Italy is having a great time. But, little by little, day by day, they start to enjoy the country’s level plains, the windmills and tulips. They surprise themselves by eventually liking this holiday.

I do not have children, but what this book confirmed to me is the very real challenge that parents of autistic children face on a day to day basis. It’s not a grim read — indeed, there are many chinks of light in it, especially when Lisa and Michael discover (and then adopt) a program called Son-Rise, which helps Sally enormously.

It’s written in a straightforward style, free of sentiment and self-pity, and I suspect readers with autistic children, friends or relatives will learn a lot from it.

Nops also has a lovely way of describing life as an expat, especially the excitement (and apprehension) of moving to a new country, discovering new cultures and adjusting to their customs, and she skilfully interleaves this detail into her story with a lightness of touch. I liked the way the author explores this sense of “otherness”, not only as an expat but as a parent of a child with special needs.

My Life in a Pea Soup won the Finch Memoir Prize in 2012.

 

Author, Blaine Harden, Book review, Mantle Books, memoir, Non-fiction, North Korea, Publisher, Setting, travel

‘Escape from Camp 14’ by Blaine Harden

Escape-from-camp-14

Non-fiction; Kindle edition; Mantle Books; 256 pages; 2012.

A couple of years ago I read Barbara Demick’s award-winning Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea, an extraordinary account of six ordinary citizens living in the world’s most secretive and repressive state.

Blaine Harden’s Escape from Camp 14 shows the other side of the coin: what it is like to live in — and then escape from — one of North Korea’s highly secretive labour camps. Indeed, Shin In Guen (now known as Shin Dong-hyuk) is the only person born in a North Korean labour camp to escape and tell his story.

Life as a slave

Shin was born “a slave and raised behind a high-voltage barbed-wire fence” in a concentration camp that the North Korean government says does not exist. The notorious Camp 14 is located in central North Korea, about 55 miles north of Pyongyang, and is so large — 30 miles long by 15 miles wide — that it has farms, mines and factories. It is home to 15,000 prisoners, most of whom have been sent there without any judicial process…

… and many die there without learning the charges against them. They are taken from their homes, usually at night, by the Bowibu, the National Security Agency. Guilt by association is legal in North Korea. A wrongdoer is often imprisoned with his parents and children. Kim Il Sung laid down the law in 1972: ‘[E]nemies of class, whoever they are, their seed must be eliminated through three generations.’

The book, which is based on interviews with Shin along with a Korean-language memoir he wrote (and had published in South Korean in 2007), is divided into three parts: Shin’s life and upbringing in the camp; his death-defying escape; and his new life in America.

Probably the most eye-opening aspect for any Western reader is realising that these camps exist (the author points out that North Korean labour camps have been around 12 times longer than the Nazi death camps) and that so few people know about them. The living conditions are horrendous — food is in short supply, health care is poor, accommodation is basic, there is no running water or electricity — and everyone is treated less than human and below the law.

The following quote paints a distressing portrait of daily life in the camps:

A few prisoners are publicly executed every year. Others are beaten to death or secretly murdered by guards, who have almost complete license to abuse and rape prisoners. Most prisoners tend crops, mine coal, sew military uniforms, or make cement while subsisting on a near-starvation diet of corn, cabbage and salt. They lose their teeth, their gums turn black, their bones weaken and, as they enter their forties, they hunch over at the waist. Issued a set of clothes once or twice a year, they commonly work and sleep in filthy rags, living without soap, socks, gloves, underclothes, or toilet paper. Twelve- to fifteen-hour workdays are mandatory until prisoners die, usually of malnutrition-related illnesses, before they turn fifty.

Shin was born into this environment and knew no other life — for him it was normal. He spent “twenty-three years in an open-air cage run by men who hanged his mother, shot his brother, crippled his father, murdered pregnant women, beat children to death, taught him to betray his family and tortured him over a fire” before he decided to escape.

A life of freedom

The book comes into its own when the tale of Shin’s escape is explained in heart-hammering detail. Reading it, it is hard not to think that it is all fiction, for surely the story is too surreal to be true. And even when Shin does make it across the border to China, those first few months on the run do not offer the blissful happiness of freedom you might expect — every day is agony, knowing that at any point he could be recaptured by the authorities. In fact, life is like this for almost two years, because that’s how long it takes for Shin to reach the relative safety of South Korea, where defectors benefit from special support networks set up to help North Koreans.

But it is the final part of the book that is perhaps the most heartbreaking, because Shin is so clearly traumatised and psychologically damaged by his upbringing that he struggles to adjust to his new life. Even though he manages to get himself to Southern California, where he becomes a senior ambassador for a human rights group, he has problems trusting people and making friends, does not understand the concepts of love or mercy, and finds it difficult to settle down long enough to stay in a  job or make a home — although there are plenty of support networks there to help him.

And while it probably didn’t help he had a journalist badgering him for this book, Shin’s story is such an important — and unique — one that it really had to be told.

In its matter-of-fact tone, Escape from Camp 14 reveals the full horror of North Korea’s human rights record. It is, by turns, shocking, distressing and scandalous. I read it with a growing sense of anger and outrage but came away from it feeling nothing but empathy and admiration for Shin’s courage and stoicism. This is a compelling and thought-provoking read, but I can’t help but wonder how many other North Koreans will never be quite as fortunate as Shin…

Author, Book review, John Vaillant, nature, Non-fiction, Publisher, Russia, Sceptre, Setting, travel, true crime

‘The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival’ by John Vaillant

Tiger

Non-fiction – Kindle edition; Sceptre; 353 pages; 2010.

John Vaillant’s The Tiger is a gripping account of the hunt to find a man-eating tiger in Russia’s Far East — a place known as Primorye, which was once considered part of Outer Manchuria, on the border with China.

The book takes one particular incident — the death of Vladimir Markov, a poacher killed by the tiger in 1997 — and spins it out into a fascinating account of the Siberian tiger (also known as the Amur tiger), its biology and behaviour, and the conservation efforts that have been made to protect the species, which is endangered, in Russia.

Part crime scene investigation, part natural history, part travelogue, it reads like a thriller with all the authority of a respected journal, and has earned Vaillant, a Vancouver-based journalist, a bevy of awards, including British Columbia’s National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction for 2010, and Globe and Mail Best Book for Science 2010.

Tiger-croppedAn Amur tiger, in captivity. Image via wikipedia reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

What makes the book so extraordinarily readable is that Vaillant turns a conservation issue into a human interest story in which good men and bad men do battle over a beautiful but enigmatic animal. He charts in painstaking detail the way in which Markov’s death was investigated by the authorities and reveals how it sparked terror in surrounding communities.

And while he shies away from demonising Markov — the man, after all, met a particularly cruel fate — he does turn Yuri Trush, the lead tracker and head of (Russian governmental anti-poaching body) Operation Tiger, into a bit of a hero for whom it is difficult not to admire.

A love letter to the tiger

But mostly Vaillant writes a kind of love letter to the tiger, peppering his adrenalin-fuelled narrative with so many tiger facts it is difficult to keep track of them all. For instance, did you know that “the tiger is, literally, tattooed: if you were to shave one bald, its stripes would still be visible, integral to its skin”? Or that a tiger’s claw is “needle-sharp at the end, and bladed along a portion of its inside length […] about as close to a surgical tool as one can find in nature”?

There are other, more surreal, aspects, including the belief that tigers are vengeful creatures and will hunt down those who do them wrong — and that includes poachers who mess with their territory or steal their kills. I thought this sounded a bit far-fetched, until Vaillant reveals evidence to suggest that the tiger who killed Markov went out of his way to track him down.

Amongst other issues, The Tiger shows how perestroika and the reopening of the border between Russia and China resulted in a surge in tiger poaching during the early 1990s.

A dangerous game

It also shows how the authorities which protect the tiger are caught up in a dangerous game — not just with the wild tigers but with the poachers who will resort to almost anything to catch their prey. Because Primorye is so remote it is true frontier country, a kind of wild west, where enforcing law and order is difficult if not impossible. And yet, Russia, the first country in the world to recognise the tiger as a protected species (it did this in 1947), has achieved some amazing results in tiger conservation.

The Amur tiger population has rebounded to a sustainable level over the past sixty years, a recovery unmatched by any other subspecies of tiger. Even with the upsurge in poaching over the past fifteen years, the Amur tiger has, for now, been able to hold its own.

I won’t lie and say this book kept me on the edge of my seat throughout: it does wane a little in places as Vaillant gets bogged down in facts and figures. The narrative works best when he concentrates on the cat-and-mouse game between the three characters that are central to the story — the tiger, the poacher and the law enforcer — although that is occasionally repetitive in places.

A frightening read

But for something a little different, it’s a terrific — and often frightening — read. And while it’s a sad and sobering thought that there are less than 400 Siberian tigers left in the wild, it’s pleasing to know that “a portion of the proceeds from the book are being donated to several organizations working on the front lines of the tiger pro­tection effort in Primorye”. Such organizations will need all the help they can get…

Finally, if you read this book in Kindle format there are a lot of rogue hyphens littering the text. These tend to appear in the middle of lines, rather than at the end, which is quite distracting. And fiddling around with the text size makes absolutely no difference.

Atlantic Books, Author, Book review, China, Jan Wong, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, travel

‘Chinese Whispers: A Journey into Betrayal’ by Jan Wong

ChineseWhispers

Non-fiction – paperback; Atlantic Books; 320 pages; 2010.

Journalist Jan Wong is a third-generation Canadian of Chinese heritage. In 1972, at the height of the Cultural Revolution, she became one of only two Westerners admitted to Beijing University, where she studied Mandarin. She was 19, impressionable and a proud Maoist, so when a fellow student, Yin Luoyi, told her she wanted help fleeing China for the United States — a Maoist “crime” — Jan did not hesitate to tell the authorities.

In one thoughtless, misguided moment, I destroyed someone’s life. […] At the time I did not give it much thought. I certainly did not understand the enormity of what I’d done. I recorded the incident in my diary, and forgot about it.

Thirty-three years later Jan decides to return to Beijing — dragging her husband and two teenage sons with her — to look for Yin Luoyi. She knows she may never find her — “How will I find a stranger in a country of 1.3 billion?” — but feels compelled to try, if only to keep her conscience at bay. But with no plan of action and just a 28-day stay, it truly seems an impossible mission.

Chinese Whispers details Jan’s quest to find the woman she wronged. But the engaging narrative also doubles as a travelogue as Jan describes a city — and a nation — in the grips of a radical transformation. It’s two years before the 2008 Beijing Olympics and buildings are being knocked down and replaced, seemingly overnight. There are new roads, new cars. The trappings of enormous wealth, rubbing up against poverty, are everywhere. This is not the city that Jan left behind all those years ago — tracking down old friends, foes and comrades is going to be more difficult than ever before.

In many ways this book reads like a detective story, as Jan slowly uncovers clues, stumbles over red herrings and runs into dead ends. But it is also a wonderfully evocative account of China’s recent history, from the Cultural Revolution to the present day, detailing the changing face of its political, social and economic systems. Indeed, it’s probably one of the best portraits of a nation trying to deal — or not deal — with its past that you’re ever likely to find.

Her narrative style is engaging and effusive and she has a lovely self-deprecating sense of humour. (I love that she calls her husband Norman “Fat Paycheck” in a nod to the Chinese name of Yulu that he was given when he lived in Beijing for some 20 years — apparently Yu means riches and lu means an official’s salary in ancient China, hence Jan’s tongue-in-cheek translation.)

Perhaps the only problem with the book is that it is now slightly dated — it was first published in Canada in 2007 as Beijing Confidential — but given China’s rapid pace of development, particularly in the past five years, that should come as no surprise.

Chinese Whispers is one of those books for which you need to clear your schedule — once you pick it up, the story is so gripping it’s a wrench to put it down. I made the mistake of starting it in a lunch-hour and then it was a race to get home after work to continue where I’d left off. Don’t say you haven’t been warned…

Author, Book review, Joe Bennett, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, Simon & Schuster, travel, UAE

‘Hello Dubai: Skiing, Sand and Shopping in the World’s Weirdest City’ by Joe Bennett

Hello-Dubai

Non-fiction – paperback; Simon & Schuster; 272 pages; 2011.

The first time I went to Dubai, on a day trip from neighbouring Abu Dhabi where I was staying in 2009, I couldn’t get over the scale of the place. It was like one giant construction site, with all manner of skyscrapers and shopping malls and apartment blocks being built. And when you went to any of the hotels or shops, there was a real feel of big money and glitz and glamour to the place.

But Dubai, one of the seven emirates of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), has a dark underside — or should that be underclass? — of mainly emigrant workers, largely from India and the Phillipines, which the glossy tourist brochures, and the ruling Arab elite, would rather you didn’t know about.

Joe Bennett, who is a professional travel writer, comes to grips with both sides of Dubai in this intriguing, and very witty, book based on his time living in the city. His highly readable account explains how Dubai went from being a quiet Arabian port into a hub of global trade and finance in just a matter of decades.

Bennett suggests that Dubai is essentially a British creation. That’s because Dubai is a sheikdom, ruled by the “royal” Al Maktoum family, who were never elected into power, they simply “assumed” it with the backing of the British, who, for all kinds of economic reasons, did not wish the UAE to be a democracy.

Dubai’s wealth initially lay in oil, but by concentrating on tourism, trade, real estate and financial services, the Al Maktoums have turned it into a Western-style economy. This has meant relaxing many of their rules to attract foreigners and foreign businesses to their shores.

For example, up until 2006, the only way a foreigner could live in Dubai was on a limited three-year visa system tied to employment. They could not buy property, because it was all owned by the ruling sheikh and Emiratis. That’s now changed, and expats can purchase their own homes — although judging by the examples Bennett quotes here, it’s not exactly straightforward, nor cheap — but they cannot obtain citizenship. This means they can be told to leave the country at any time, which is quite a convenient system for those in charge.

But Bennett doesn’t just look at what makes Dubai tick, he goes out into the other emirates (except the UAE capital, Abu Dhabi) to compare them, and much of what he finds is in stark contrast to the wealth and opportunism that Dubai affords.

He meets a variety of people, from expat South Africans living in mansion-like villas equipped with swimming pools and driving expensive four-wheel drives, to hard-working Filipino maids, who are treated like second-class citizens by their employers. He hangs out with foreign businessmen, the nouvea rich, who are making big bucks and plays cricket with Indian, Pakistani and Sri Lankan labourers on their day off.

And while he has a perceptive eye and notices the unobtrusive underclass and the lewd, often culturally insensitive, behaviour of the richer expats, Bennett’s book is far from heavy or judgmental. It features some delicious comic moments, such as when he accidentally finds himself caught in no man’s land between the UAE and Oman, or when he falls over in the shower, tears the curtain from the wall and knocks himself out on the toilet seat.

This is a terrific book, which pretty much does what it says on the tin. If you’re thinking of visiting Dubai, or even if you’re not, this is a fun, but intelligent, read about a city that is truly unique.

Author, Book review, India, Kindle Singles, New York, Non-fiction, Oliver Broudy, Publisher, Setting, travel

‘The Saint’ by Oliver Broudy

The-Saint

Non-fiction – Kindle edition; Kindle Singles; 85 pages; 2011. Review copy courtesy of the author.

One of the added benefits of electronic books is the ability to publish work that would normally fall through the cracks. For instance, what magazine would take the risk — or have the required space — to publish a 30,000 word article?

When Amazon launched Kindle Singles earlier this year for one-off pieces of non-fiction, Wired heralded it as the saviour of long-form journalism.

According to Amazon: “Each Kindle Single presents a compelling idea — well researched, well argued, and well illustrated — expressed at its natural length.” This length is between 5,000 and 30,000 words, so shorter than a novel, but longer than a typical magazine article.

The Saint, published in mid-March, is an example of a Kindle Single. It was written by Oliver Broudy, the former managing editor of the Paris Review, who now concentrates on freelance journalism.

The piece is structured around the idea that everyone gets stuck in a rut, and even if you live in the most exciting city in the world it can sometimes feel like life is passing you by. So what would you do if you were given the chance to leave your comfort zone and do something really crazy? New Yorked-based Broudy calls the moment you make these decisions “the lunge”.

The lunge may remind you of its cousin, the leap of faith, but the leap is a far nobler tactic, inspired by high ideals, whereas the lunge is driven more by desperation, recklessness and self-disgust.

The catalyst for Broudy’s “lunge” comes when he is covering a story for an online magazine about a controversial auction of Mahatma Gandhi memorabilia. There are five personal items on offer: Gandhi’s pocket watch, his sandals, an eating bowl, a plate and a pair of glasses.

The man offering the items for sale is James Otis, a 45-year-old collector who deals largely in memorabilia associated with Charles Schulz, Maurice Sendak and Dr Suess. By all accounts Otis is an intriguing character — with eccentric overtones.

His Gandhi auction caused an outcry, particularly with Indians — the government, the media, the public — who were outraged by a rich American trying to profit off the man they revered as the leader of the independence movement against British rule. Otis received death threats and thousands of angry emails, and had to call a press conference to explain that the money would go to “Gandhian causes”.

When Broudy attends the auction and sees Otis’s vulnerability and hears him read a statement fighting back tears, he realises that Otis has noble aims.

And then to my surprise he went on to announce that he was commencing a twenty-three-day fast (the longest Gandhi had ever attempted) to reflect on his actions. This was beyond unusual. As far as I could tell, all parties in the affair had sunk to their respective lows. The press: sensationalism; the auction-house: greed; and the Indian politicians: a self-serving indignation grotesquely at odds with the teachings of the one whose legacy they claimed to defend. Only James had tried to adhere to Gandhian principles throughout.

What follows is an extraordinary adventure in which Broudy accompanies Otis on a trip to India and Tibet. You get the very real sense that Broudy truly admires Otis — indeed, he regards him as saintly, hence the title of the piece — but before long the cracks begin to appear in their lopsided relationship.

Is Otis really as noble as he appears? Or is he merely a naive man with money to burn? And how does Broudy reconcile his need to escape the narcissistic bubble of New York life with a life on the road alongside a narcissist?

Like most good first-person journalism, The Saint takes you on an absorbing journey into a world few of us would ever visit. Broudy has an effortless writing style and his eye for detail makes the characters, the places and the events come alive.

It’s worth a read if you’re fascinated by the sometimes extreme measures people will take to find personal fulfillment. And if you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to do something totally crazy, just to escape the rat race for a bit, then you’ll also find plenty to admire here…

Author, Book review, China, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, travel, Vintage, W. Somerset Maugham

‘On a Chinese Screen’ by W. Somerset Maugham

On-a-chinese-screen

Non-fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage Classics; 137 pages; 2010.

This is one of those books I probably would never have bothered reading had it not been for two important facts: it was a free download from manybooks.net and it was about China.

What I hadn’t clocked when I first began reading it was this: there is no narrative thread holding this book together. It is merely a collection of pen-portraits of various people, mainly expat officials, that Somerset Maugham met on his travels through China in the early 1920s.

There are 58 short sketches in total, and while each one is expertly and vividly drawn, it does not make for an effortless read because it is simply too disjointed. It’s almost like reading someone’s notebook rather than a published book.

Its importance, I guess, is more as an historical “document”, because Maugham’s “reportage” offers a glimpse of Europeans living in China during the interwar years. What he depicts is far from pleasant. These are people who don’t give a damn about the culture or the people. They simply cling onto the vestiges of home. No one bothers to learn the language or befriend the natives. Assuming that Maugham’s descriptions of British diplomats, Catholic missionaries and the like are accurate, this is a rather damning portrayal of the English abroad.

This is a good example:

China bored them all, they did not want to speak of that; they only knew just so much about it as was necessary to their business, and they looked with distrust upon any man who studied the Chinese language. Why should he unless he were a missionary or a Chinese Secretary at the Legation? You could hire an interpreter for twenty-five dollars a month and it was well known that all those fellows who went in for Chinese grew queer in the head.

Funnily enough, I get the impression that many of his sketches are tongue-in-cheek and that Maugham knows full well that these people are truly hideous in outlook and attitude.

Indeed, the book works best when Maugham offers up his own opinion of the Chinese natives (mainly “coolies”) and the places he visits (mainly villages along the Yangtze) — he seems far more accepting, interested and intrigued by his travel adventures than his British counterparts.

There in the mist, enormous, majestic, silent, and terrible, stood the Great Wall of China. Solitarily, with the indifference of nature herself, it crept up the mountain side and slipped down in the depth of the valley. Menacingly, the grim watch towers, stark and foursquare, at due intervals stood at their posts.

The book, however, is probably best read by genuine W. Somerset Maugham fans, those with a deep interest in China or budding authors wishing to learn the art of descriptive writing.

It was first published in 1922.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, China, Ma Jian, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, travel

‘Red Dust’ by Ma Jian

Red-dust

Non-fiction – Kindle edition; CCV Digital; 336 pages; 2010. Translated from the Chinese by Flora Drew.

I’m not a huge fan of travelogues, but I decided to read Red Dust based on the strength of Ma Jian’s superb novel Beijing Coma and Max Cairnduff’s excellent review.

I read it on my Kindle while in China last month, and found much of Jian’s descriptions, particularly of places I had been such as the ancient city of Xi’an and the Ghost City of Fengdu, very authentic.

The book chronicles Jian’s travels throughout China during the 1980s, a time in which travel for the average Chinese citizen was banned without the necessary paperwork.

He claims to go travelling because: “I want to see my country, every river, every mountain. I want to see different people, different lives. […] I just want to know it, see it with my own eyes.” But that is the sanitised version.

Before he hit the road, Jian was an official photographer for the propaganda department of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions. He spent most of his free time as an artist. His house, a “crumbling old shack”, in Beijing was used by fellow creatives — writers, painters, poets and dissidents — as a secret meeting point.

He was labelled as a “questionable youth” by his bosses, who believed his “spare time activities” indicated he had been poisoned by “bourgeois Spiritual Pollution”. He escaped the clutches of Party Officials waging their Campaign Against Spiritual Pollution by forging his own travel documents and heading for the desert. (Just as well, because within a matter of years more than a million people were arrested and nearly 200,000 executed as part of the Campaign.)

It was 1983 and he was 30 years old. He had hoped to find spiritual enlightenment along the way, but as most travellers are wont to discover, Jian ended up learning a great deal about his country — good, bad and ugly — and the people who lived in it.

He was on the move for three years before he decided to return to Beijing.

Initially he revels in the freedom that travel provided:

Men are like swallows, when autumn arrives they long to fly away. Life moves with the same rhythm as the sky and the earth. It changes as sun changes into moon and day into night. If they told me to return to Beijing now, I would charge straight into those ramparts.  I would rather crack my skull and die than go back to moulder in that dank city.

But later, after some close encounters and a constant struggle to earn enough cash to get by, he realises that freedom is not the be all and end all. “Walking through the wilds freed me from worries and fears, but this is not real freedom,” he wrote. “You need money to be free.”

While I found Red Dust an easy read and enjoyed discovering more about China through Jian’s eyes, I did have some problems with the book.

The first — which can be dismissed as my own fault, rather than the author’s — was Jian’s narrative voice. I simply did not like it, because it often came across as arrogant and sexist (not dissimilar, in fact, to his fictional Dai Wei in Beijing Coma).

The second is simply the repetition of Jian arriving in a new place (usually broke and worried that the authorities will discover his papers are illegal), befriending someone, finding out about the local culture and then leaving. Once or twice is interesting, but when the bulk of the narrative is just relating a succession of these encounters, as different as each may be, it does become wearing. (Max Cairnduff’s review also finds this a major failing.)

Of course, that’s not enough to dismiss the book completely. There’s a lot in Red Dust which provides food for thought, particularly as it is set just as China’s economy was beginning to open up thanks to Deng Xiaoping‘s reforms. Jian thought that this would help his people, until he meets many rural folk who tell him otherwise. One chap says:

“A free economy won’t make bicycles or sewing machines grow from the earth. […] All the young men have left to find work in the cities. They come back at Spring Festival with new watches and big bags of clothes.”

I’d love to know how opinions and attitudes have changed in the 25 years since Jian went on his travels, but sadly Jian will never be able to retrace his steps to find out. He’s no longer welcome in his homeland and has been resident in London since 1999. His books are banned in China.