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Books for days when you want to be…. somewhere else

March 6, 2013

IMG_5232Some days, you want to be far away.  And it doesn’t really matter where.  I’ve now embraced the fact that I will always have itchy feet, so I love finding books that take me places without me needing to pack a bag.  Here are three books I’ve read recently that really encapsulate that feeling for me.  Have you read them too?

China Melville, The City and The City

For that in-between feeling of being stuck between cultures, this is the perfect in-flight introduction. My own recommendation for this strange novel is adding to the snowball of recommendations that came with it, so I’m hoping they’ll mow you down.

Set in a strange pair of cities with an Eastern European feel (maybe Turkish, maybe Slavic), your detective hero is caught in a whodunnit. But as the story unravels you realise that the clues are leading to something bigger, more existential. I think this book is asking the question: what are you ignoring, as you walk down the street?

Powerful stuff.

(thank you, Steve)

Jean Sasson, Princess

I  felt slightly dirty reading this. A big part of me knows that while it’s supposedly the secrets of a Saudi Arabian princess, there have no doubt been editorial choices designed to create a page turner. The style is rather overbearing, and while I have it as an e-book I imagine the paperback has big gold lettering and the promise of an Oscar-nominated film to come. But I’m ashamed to say, I was gripped.

Every year, thousands of young Sri Lankan women travel to Saudi as housemaids, although according to Al Jazeera in Jan 2013, this will decrease.  While not on the surface about this experience, this memoir does offer some not very pleasant insights into that work.  And as a backdrop to learning more about Asian women’s experience of the world, it’s given me rather a lot to think about. In having conversations with women, especially from the Hindi north of Sri Lanka, I was horrified to hear that as in Saudi, Sri Lankan baby girls are less celebrated than boy babies, that dowries and arranged marriages are common, and that the fate of a divorced lady is very much dependent on her family. Which all makes the ‘shock’ Saudi revelations in this book seem ever more present.

Coincidentally, I met an English teacher working in Jeddah while I was reading this book. She gave me an update given that this book is about life in seventies Saudi. Young women definitely have contact with boys their age, now, and there’s some relaxation of the more stringent laws on womenswear depending on where you are in Saudi. But I remain unconvinced that there’ll be a women’s revolution any time soon.

Peter Benson, A Lesser Dependency

Sad, sad story of what happened to native people on the island of Diego Garcia – a British dependency that we unceremoniously tipped up in the late 1960s, scattering its people on to nearby islands like Mauritius, and handed over to the Americans to use as a naval base. You can read more about the background here.

Again, this book came recommended and lived up to that; it’s starkly written and has the feel of Steinbeck’s Pearl and other novels of its time. Crime writer Mark Billingham recently wrote in the Guardian that the key to writing suspense is in creating characters that ‘live and breathe on the page … the tension is real and terrible, because you care.’   The characters of lazy Raphael and his industrious sister Maude, who try to make a new life for themselves after being uprooted from their homeland, are well sketched and lend the novel both its suspense and its tragedy.

(thank you to Felicity Brasier for the recommendation)

Have you read any novels recently that transport you a million miles away?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 7, 2013 10:01 am

    The City & the City is one of my favourite books, really mind bending.
    Will have to check out the other 2 🙂

    • March 7, 2013 10:12 am

      Oh cool – I also had Mieville’s novel Kraken recommended but I haven’t got to read it yet. So many books, so little time 🙂

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