Le Sueur’s account of the several years he spent working at a highly dysfunctional hotel in Tibet will be enjoyed by readers interested in visiting the country and it has some pretty funny moments. It has been dubbed Faulty Towers in Tibet by many, but for me this was, in part, its problem.
While Le Sueur comes to understand Tibet, he seems to get to know few Tibetans well. After all, he is working in a hotel populated by an ever-changing contingent of tourists and manned largely by foreigners.
Le Sueur gives a great account of what it might be like to run a business while dealing with the whims of the Communist Party of China, in a politically-charged atmosphere. This is sometimes interesting, but can become tedious to read about with lots of red tape and random, arbitrary decisions.
I find commenting on the short comings of non-fiction travel writing difficult, as it seems a pretty tall order to expect the author to bend the truth into some sort of narrative structure, when life is in fact often haphazard and meaningless by nature. But for me this book did feel like a lot of random occurrences strung together, and as a result I found myself fairly indifferent to whether I actually finished it or not.
“It is altogether curious, your first contact with poverty. You have thought so much about poverty — it is the thing you have feared all your life, the thing you knew would happen to you sooner or later; and it is so utterly and prosaically different. You thought it would be quite simple; it is extraordinarily complicated. You thought it would be terrible; it is merely squalid and boring. It is the peculiar lowness of poverty that you discover first; the shifts that it put you to, the shifts that it puts you to, the complicated meanness, the crust wiping.” — p 13 Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell.
In order to relive my November trip to South East Asia, I decided to bump The Beach by Alex Garland up my to-be-read list. It’s told from the first-person perspective of Richard, a gap year student in Thailand. When a half-crazed Scotsman named Daffy gives Rich a map to a hidden island, he and some fellow travellers decide to set out in search of it. Once they reach the secluded island and join its commune they declare it to be Eden, and do their best to forget about The World. But as tensions arise in the community and too many drugs start to distort Richard’s view of the Thai paradise, it begins to turn into a nightmare.
What struck me most about The Beach was the social anxiety constantly underlying the action. From the very beginning Richard puts a strong focus on recounting the reactions of all the other characters to everything he says or does, he details his often petty reasons for disliking someone and retells every social misunderstanding. This added to the tense atmosphere of the book and put me on edge. As the drama on the island begins to escalate so too does Richard’s tendency towards social anxiety, until he becomes very paranoid.
I also found Richard’s fascination with the Vietnam War interesting, he begins by just making occasional references to films set in the war, but as the novel progresses he actually starts referring to people as VCs (Viet Congs) and wandering around thinking in army speak.
As you may have guessed by now, seeing the beach from inside Richard’s head isn’t always a comfortable experience. On top of all of his other quirks, he suffers from vivid and violent dreams, which later progress into full-blown hallucinations. His personality also undergoes a journey, he starts off being rather likeable, but eventually shows himself to be completely self-absorbed and unconcerned with the lives of others. In fact by the end of The Beach the only two characters that I thought had any redeeming qualities were Étienne and Jed.
The tensions present in The Beach between group thinking and individuality, combined with its focus on the brutal side of human nature, make drawing comparisons between it and The Lord of the Flies by William Golding unavoidable. It’s an uncomfortable but thrilling experience for the reader, and while I admired it I wouldn’t say that I enjoyed it.
In November I went on an amazing holiday in South-East Asia. I thought I’d share a few photos from the trip.
At The Grand Palace, Bangkok.
Inside The Grand Palace, Bangkok.
Me in front of Angkor Wat, Cambodia, at sunrise.
Monks wandering around inside Angkor Wat.
Me at another temple in Cambodia.
The “Tomb Raider” temple in Cambodia.
The “Tomb Raider” temple in Cambodia.
My fried tarantulas with a lemon pepper sauce in a restaurant in Cambodia.
Me eating the fried tarantulas.
Me at Halong Bay in Vietnam.
Me out the front of Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum in Hanoi, Vietnam,
In French Milk, Lucy Knisley recounts the six weeks that she and her mother rented an apartment in Paris to celebrate their 22nd and 50th birthdays. Its blend of comic book style drawings, travel photographs and personal thoughts gives the book a collage feel, and results in a feeling of intimacy with Knisley.
Knisley shares what she’s reading, how she’s feeling; from her bad moods to her longing for her boyfriend, and what she’s eating. This book made me pretty hungry. Most things set in France seem to affect my appetite like that.
I found that the main theme in French Milk, apart from travel, was the conflict that many people in their early twenties feel in as they make that strange transition from adolescence to adulthood, as well as the anxiety about soon having to make one’s own way that nearing the end of tertiary education produces. These are all feelings I’ve recently experienced, but have not really seen captured in a book before, so I really enjoyed and related to this aspect of Knisley’s thoughts.
This was just the trick today when I needed something light to entertain me while sick in bed. It’s short, whimsical, but also very poignant. And it’s my first graphic novel, I’m really keen to try out some more now after enjoying this one so much.
Cuba is on my list of travel destinations I’d like to make it to one day, and so when Enduring Cuba by Zoe Bran caught my eye one day I suggested it to my library as an acquisition (because I’m cheap like that).
The back cover reads:
“Zoe Bran has always been fascinated by the gap between the ideals of the world’s socialist countries and the arduous hand-to-mouth struggles of the people who live in them. Castro’s Cuba is one of the last such places on earth. Seeking to understand the realities of Cuba today, Zoe travels the length of this beautiful island. Beneath the surface of music and dancing, cockfights and animal sacrifice, she finds a land of complex ambiguities: a fertile land where many hunger; an educated country with scant knowledge of the outside world, a nation exhausted by socialism but proud of its independence and history of revolutionary struggle. From Havana to the pastoral hinterland, Zoe talks with writers and artists, with expatriates, with committed revolutionaries and those desperate to escape abroad. Enduring Cuba presents a kaleidoscope of Cuba and its people, whose tenacity and endurance is both inspiring and humbling.”
As someone who had only a limited knowledge about Cuba’s history before reading this book, I can honestly say it taught me a lot. Bran gives a very detailed account of historical events as they come up in her conversations with Cubans and fellow travellers. This can make the book a bit heavy going at times and for that reason I probably wouldn’t recommend it to someone looking for light, armchair travel, but it suited me. My only complaint is that I would have liked a few more accounts of Bran actually doing things in Cuba, as the majority of the book is made up of her conversations with people, which are interesting, but I did expect a bit more doing from a book under the Lonely Planet brand. That’s not to say there isn’t any action, Bran’s accounts of a cockfight and a religious festival involving animal sacrifice are vividly gruesome and capture the intense atmosphere. While these events were slightly uncomfortable to read about, they were a strong point of Enduring Cuba and I think it would have benefited from more captivating passages like them.
Bard falls in love, consumes delicious food and alternatively battles and embraces French culture in Lunch in Paris. A simple concept, but one foodies, travel buffs, romantics and the French crazed will enjoy. Each chapter is punctuated with several recipes, which I must admit, not being much of a cook, I usually skipped over.
An American in London, Bard begins a fling with a Frenchman – hopping on the Eurostar after work each Friday for a weekend in Paris. Eventually her romance with Gwendal becomes more serious, she moves there and they become engaged. Hilarious accounts of cross-cultural marriage incidents ensue:
“Gwendal is expanding his range in English. Although he is used to giving straight-laced scientific papers at international conferences, his colloquial English is a mix of spaghetti Westerns, Fred Astaire and early Beatles lyrics. One evening when I was making dinner, Gwendal decided to scrub down the bathroom. He emerged with a bottle of Ajax in one hand and a sponge in the other. “That was some dirty bathroom,” he said, leaning against the door like John Wayne surveying the landscape from the porch of a saloon…
I have to censor myself. I never noticed the way I spoke English until I had someone mimicking me like a parrot. My vocabulary is a disorganised closet full of fifties slang and phrases plucked from my favourite nineteenth-century novels… I’ll be on the phone… gossiping about an old friend. “I don’t know what she thought of him, but clearly he thinks he’s the cat’s pajamas.”
“The cat’s pajamas,” said Gwendal later that night. “Can I use that?
“Not unless you want to get your ass kicked.””
Lunch in Paris is not the book for you if you’re on a diet. It made me crave wine; a couple of glasses of it seemed necessary while reading about Bard’s journey. It made my stomach growl. It made me want to bake. The following is one of many passages from the book that provoked my hunger:
“When le dessert finally arrives, it looks like an innocent upside down chocolate cupcake, accompanied by a small cloud of freshly whipped cream. But when my spoon breaks the surface, the chocolate centre flows like dark lava onto the whiteness of the plate. The last ounce of stress drains from my body… the menu says Moelleux au Chocolat Kitu.”
Light, funny and mouth watering, Lunch in Paris is a satisfying trip through France.