In a recent post about Iceland, I mentioned that I often purchase books as part of my further education while traveling in a country. I look for a local bookstore, peruse the English translations, and inquire about notable classics. Often, it’s a volume that’s studied in school by students of that land. These stories provide a window to better understand the history and culture of a place and make the experience of traveling there richer. A few blog readers found that to be an interesting idea, so I’d like to share some of my reads on the road.
The first three novels were recommended by local store employees. (Pardon me for repeating the Iceland book here.)
Iceland is known for its sagas. Iceland’s Bell by Halldór Laxness, a Nobel Prize winner, explores the influence of the Danes and Vikings as it follows a hapless farmer stumbling on major events and figures (inspiration for Forrest Gump?). Picturing some of these characters riding through the countryside in their centuries-old garb tickled my imagination. One evening at a bar in the northern city of Akureyri, several Icelanders were amazed that I was familiar with the story and it was a great opener to lively conversation.
Required reading in many high school classes and winner of international awards, Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones is the story of a beloved teacher, named affectionately for a Charles Dickens character, on an island off New Zealand that reads like a beautiful fable until the horrific war reaches the remote tropical world.
In Troubles by J. G. Farrell, a British major comes to Ireland to pursue a woman he had met years before. The relationship does not work out, but he is captivated by the deteriorating hotel he stays in and spends months there, unaware of the troubles brewing, the struggle for independence.
The following books are from places where I have lived. If you are traveling to these countries, I highly recommend you look for them for background and understanding.
The autobiography, I, Rigoberta Menchú was written from a series of interviews with the Nobel Peace Prize winner. Her story as a Guatemalan indigenous woman and activist highlights the daily life of Mayan people and the genocide perpetrated by the military, including the murder of Menchú’s family. Later, it came to light that some of these stories were not hers alone, but those of others she knew, but the truth of those incidences have never been in doubt. I had the honor of attending a heartwarming session where Menchú welcomed the visiting Dalai Lama, with translators for Spanish and Tibetan. I was escorting students from the school where I taught.
Wonderful, fable-like The Disobedience of the Daughter of the Sun, Ecstasy and Time, by Martin Prechtel, tells the Tz’utujil Mayan tale in this beautiful book illustrated by the author’s artwork. Prechtel, an American, lived in Santiago Atitlán as a young man and became a shaman. When I visited the village, I met, unknowingly at the time, his ex-wife, a lovely Mayan woman.
Any of Milan Kundera’s novels will give insight into the repressive Communist regime in the Czech Republic and how it changed the lives of artists and professional individuals. You may know The Unbearable Lightness of Being from the movie, a sexual romp as well as a political commentary, that bears the same name.
Although not a book, I must recommend another film, Kolya, an Academy Award winner, a touching and humorous story, that brings to life the Czech culture. A Czech musician marries a Russian woman to help her escape the Soviet Union and becomes saddled with her son after she leaves the country.
As a reader, you are probably familiar with the wonderful novels and short stories of contemporary Japanese bestselling author Haruki Murakami. I’ve read them all and can’t wait for the next one (soon to be released)! Here are a few other selections you may not know.
Historic classic Thousand Cranes by Yasunari Kawabata, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, tells a beautifully written, poignant love story with a geisha in a northern town buried in snow. The detailed description of the traditional tea ceremony reveals the subtlety of its meaning.*
And here are two contemporary short story collections that shine a light on different aspects of east-vs-west culture and will move you: award-winning The Laws of Evening by Mary Yukari Waters, and Asleep by banana yoshimoto.
A few notable Japanese films to see before you go: For a delightful visit to rural Japan, watch Hayao Miyazaki’s animated classic My Neighbor Totoro. Learn about the secrets of making traditional ramen from Japan’s small eating joints in humorous Tampopo.
*I realize, after reading an older post by my friend PedroL, Food for Thought, that I have confused two Kawabata stories: Snow Country and Thousand Cranes. Snow Country is about the love story, Thousand Cranes has the tea ceremony.
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Email me at: Ruth@RuthRosenfeld.com