Reading Around The World: Update 3

>> 23 January 2015

Seriously, y'all. My kingdom for a love story!! Now we go to Argentina, Singapore, and Iceland.

SET: A Love Story, Karen Dodson
I liked this book when I thought it was a true story. I'm not sure why I thought this, but I gave it a lot of passes that I normally wouldn't have, because I thought it was true. It reads like a first-person account of living an unremarkable and emotionally stunted life and having that life transformed by a change of location. I had assumed, from the writing, that the author had never written anything before, and was charmed that she was so intent on recording her story. Then I finished the book and realized that the author was not the person in the story, and I was angry. Things began to fall into place. Of course the protagonist works as a 'journalist' for a big paper in Chicago... in 2014. Of course she falls in love with the first person who is nice to her. Of course she just leaves behind her life to go and be with him. What about visas? What about health insurance? What about credit card payments and loans and 401Ks? Why do you and your 'love' have such awkward and short conversations? What is wrong with you? Turns out there was nothing wrong with the character, just the writer. FICTION. Tricked. Patagonia sounds pretty amazing though- I had no idea there were glaciers there!
Kissiness: 3/5
Bad-decisionness: 5/5
Long-pauses-in-conversationness: 10/5
Feels: annoyed, puzzled, annoyed, puzzled, meh

The Moonlight Palace, Liz Rosenberg
Few stories have drawn me in as completely as this one did. Many fiction authors write through the first person view of their characters, but still reserve their role as omniscient explainer. This book is nearly entirely told in the voice of a mature but young girl; even real historical events are related through her lens and her understanding. It made me much more sympathetic to her as she failed to see her life unfolding around here and failed to understand the people in it. There is something universally relatable to her difficult position; the future looms over her family just as oppressively as the crumbling palace in which they lives. The past is tangled and complicated, just as their relationships with each other have become. My favorite character is the maternal grandmother, Nei Nei Down, because she is everything a 17-year-old girl needs: stern, direct, wise, loving, and infinitely devoted to her family. Set against the backdrop of 1920s Singapore, a country I'm mildly obsessed with, it was a beautifully written, immersive and emotionally challenging book. I devoured every word an I actually want to read it again. Rare.
Greenery: 4/5
Smellfullness: 3/5
Festiveness: 3/5
Feels: sympathy, nostalgia, sad, frustrated, relieved

For 91 Days in Iceland, Michael Powell
Well, I knew I would eventually end up accidentally reading a travel guide. At least this one was well-researched. If you're planning on making a trip to Iceland within the next few years, this is probably you best resource for first-hand reviews of literally everything there is to do and see in Iceland. This couple apparently goes around to various countries and lives there for 3 months while they explore, which is pretty cool. I spent a lot of time thinking about how much a life like that must cost, but was able to ignore the expenses by looking at the accompanying photos of the eerie and vast Icelandic landscape. While charmingly written, I never got the sense that the author developed much of an affection for Iceland, and he sometimes gets a little fussy about things that I wouldn't have even thought about (for example, his complaints that other patrons in the Blue Lagoon, an outdoor pool that gets its name and color from an industrial runoff accident, might not be 'hygienic'... seriously?). Maybe I'm just cranky because I actually like fish jerky, which he describes unfavorably. His descriptions of people are deeply impersonal and I don't thing I recall him having made a single Icelandic friend. Three months, dude, come on! Maybe it's because he isn't shy about his dislike of children or his constant dismay at the smallness of the towns. On the upside, I really, really want to go spend about a month in Iceland now.
Scenery: 5/5
Descriptiveness: 5/5
Metaphor: 0/5
Feels: dry, vaguely amused, vaguely annoyed, unfulfilled


Reading Around The World: Update 2

>> 18 January 2015

Time for the next update of my reading project! Usually when I undertake these things, they start to seem like a chore pretty early on. So far this one doesn't. I am actually reminded of myself in late elementary and junior high, when all I ever did was read and everything else felt like a chore. I am remembering how much I enjoy losing an entire day to a book and how addictive they are while they're happening (and what a relief they are when they're over). The next countries in my list are Norway, Germany, and Uganda.

Norwegian by Night, Derek B. Miller
This was a heady and sad book about growing old, facing your own mortality and that of others, and coping with the terrible fear of death. It also happens to be a bit of a cop drama that happens to take place in Norway. The story is meant to be fast-paced, but becomes mired in the musings of a senile man as he confronts the guilt of his early life as the end of his life draws ever nearer. Also there is some murderings. I learned from this book that I am too young to sympathize with the black terror that grips the elderly, that I cannot fathom the horrors of war, and that I'll never truly understand Jewish people, nor what it means to be really persecuted. Sigrid, the lady police detective, offered me some respite from these dark thoughts as I tried to determine who she should fall in love with, but these possibilities were not remotely visited in this book. It's like the author didn't even realize she was single! It was probably Petter.
Kissiness: 0/5
Murderiness: 5/5
Interestingness: 3/5
Feels: tired, frustrated, excited, tired, sad, tired, excited, tired

The Wandering Harlot, Iny Lorentz
I chose this book with the silly title thinking that it would be a light diversion from the headiness of the previous book. Incorrect. I realized pretty quickly that this was a really serious historical tale of revenge, which takes place during the extremely confusing and profusely be-Poped period of 1400s Germany. A sheltered and virtuous young woman is very cruelly wronged and undergoes a dramatic character shift as she encounters the Real World. We follow her all over Germany (seriously, I needed a map) as she travels around encountering various fortunes and hardships. In the end she gets a spectacularly public revenge against her many enemies, is absolved by the church, and married to her childhood sweetheart. This is the kind of story that I would ordinarily go batty for, but throughout it all I found the characters emotionless, distant, cold, and totally impossible to connect with. But it had all my other favorite features: brutal justice, complicated historical settings, even more complicated political subterfuge, and the sad murder of some beloved livestock, which I wanted to boohoo about, but the characters' reactions just didn't muster up that sympathy in me. Finally, I realized that this was a story set in Germany and had originally been written in German, by Germans. The mystery of the emotionless characters is solved!
Germanness: 5/5
Kissiness: 0/5
Feels: sad, frustrated, sad, intrigued, scared, happy, nervous, happy

The Impenetrable Forest: My Gorilla Year in Uganda, Thor Hanson
This is the first hand account of a Peace Corps volunteer in Uganda in the 90s who has got to have landed one of the best Peace Corps assignments I've ever heard of- habituating gorilla families ahead of planned gorilla tourism. His experiences of learning to navigate the culture and everyday realities of life (and death) in a developing country really resonated with me, for obvious reasons. But what surprised and impressed me the most was the complete absence of cultural judgements (even the most subtle) and the total lack of emotional reminiscences of the ease of living at 'home' that I'm often guilty of myself. I could learn a serious lesson in acceptance and personal peace by following this example. By the end of the narrative, though, I was also ready to return 'home' with the author, feeling that peculiar mental and emotional exhaustion and disappointment that overrides all other senses at the end of a trip. Also, he finally put paint to the need I always have to go on a vacation of sorts before arriving home from something like this. It's sort of an emotional palette cleanser and one of the reasons I like to take a few days transit when I go back to the US. Also there were lots and lots of awesome stories about gorillas and other mountain forest creatures and boy oh boy do I want to go to Uganda now.
Kissiness: 0/5
Interestingness: 5/5
Royalness: 1/5
Feels: understanding, sympathy, sad, tired, hope


The worst night of my life.

>> 14 January 2015

I remember very clearly the worst night of my life. It was July 28th, 2012, and I was in Timor.

I spent the majority of that first trip to Timor away from Dili and out in the districts. After a few nights in the city and the heat and the noise and the mosquitos and the people and the language I didn't understand, frankly, I was terrified of it. I needed the safety and comfort of smaller towns and slower life. It's funny to me now that I was so terrified of the very neighborhood where I now live and work, but I digress.

My trip coincided with an important election, and it made things tense all over the country. There were riots and demonstrations and gang fights and tires burning in the streets, but only one person was killed so it was considered 'safe'. Almost a week before I was to leave the country, and several days before I planned to return to Dili, I secured an interview that was too good to pass up. So, on a rainy Friday morning, I left the misty jungle paradise of Baucau to return to the dusty noise of Dili. The guard, Maun Antonio, was sitting outside before sunrise smoking clove cigarettes, and Mana Lolo, my cook, friend, caretaker, hugged me tight and gave me some small gifts. I cried, and then they cried, and in the cold mist and rain, it felt like the whole world was crying.

I was crying a lot at that time in my life, often not even knowing why. Part of what I was doing in Timor (besides Being A Linguist) was trying to sort out what was happening in my heart and my head. In Baucau, I only sometimes had internet and it gave me a welcome reprieve from the pressing matter of trying to communicate with my then-husband, who was only dimly aware of what I was doing there and why it was so important for both of us. I kept my communication to a minimum on the advice of my therapist and tried to focus on my life as it was happening and not on the future. It was an amazing experience. For a long time, my main feelings were limited to Sad, Panic, and Angry. The only way I could cope with this was to just try and suppress them as much as possible. After a while, I just became so numb that it took extreme circumstances to stir up real emotion in me. As a result, I became a terrifying combination of total fearlessness and raw, volatile, unpredictable emotion.

When I returned to Dili later that day, the sun was shining and the streets were quiet. I called my contact on the way to our interview, and he informed me that he had left for the districts earlier that day and was not going to return for at least a week. I was angry. I had to get out of Dili.

The next morning, I somehow boarded the ferry without a ticket and headed to Atauro. I couldn't stop shaking. Something was wrong with me, but I thought it was the anxiety of being crammed on a boat with hundreds of souls and not knowing what was waiting for me when I got there. A family tried to make conversation with me. I had become pretty competent in Tetun, a local language, but speaking to them felt like looking at a familiar landscape on a foggy morning; disorienting and opaque. We landed 3 hours later and I made my way to the local eco-lodge, which was completely booked. I sat on a log with another couple who were in the same predicament. She was Irish, he was Canadian, and I didn't like them. I was sweating far too much.

An abandoned eco-lodge 5 kilometers away agreed to let us stay there. The couple I didn't like insisted that they were going to sleep in their tent on the beach. Idiots. We walked the 5 kilometers down to the other lodge. There was no shade, but I wasn't sweating any more by the time we arrived. My legs felt numb. I was really, really angry. The lodge was indeed abandoned, but someone made us some lunch. I ate with the Canadian and Irish couple and tried to make non-surly conversation. A well-meaning local guy joined us and invited me (not us) to church the next morning. I agreed. He said I had to wear a shawl. I shrugged and refilled my water bottle from a jug. I still don't know what started it, but I'm positive it was this final dose of poison that sent me into Hell.

That night, I lay in bed sweating, cramping, and whimpering. My insides were trying as hard as they could to become my outsides through any means possible. My only bathroom was a squat toilet about 100m from where I lay. At one point as I squatted there, trying to hold in the vomit for as long as it took me to finish with the other end, I drew a strange sort of comfort from watching the biggest cockroaches I'd ever seen crawling on and around my feet. "At least there is something alive here. At least something alive will be with me when I die," I thought. Eventually I gave up making it to the bathroom, and all the while I kept drinking the water that was poisoning me.

I remember worrying that the moon was setting. After a few hours of the cycle of get sick, drink water, lay down, get sick, drink water, lay down, etc., it was so dark that I couldn't see my hut, and I even got lost once.

It was in this state of weakness and fear that I broke. I turned on my American phone and sent two identical text messages to two very different people. "I'm really sick. I'm alone in the jungle and I'm scared." The response I got from my then-husband was sympathetic but short and uncomprehending. The response I got from the other recipient was a long list of possible diagnoses and their treatments, advice to get help at first light, and reassurance that I would survive this.

I spent the rest of consciousness that night crying because I knew that that really was the end of my marriage. It's a bit of an anti-climactic end, but it wasn't the worst night of my life until the moment of that realization.