A Travellerspoint blog

Korea: A Walk Through The Land Of Miracles

By Simon Winchester

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After a recent trip to South Korea, I was keen to find out some more about this fascinating country so was pleased to discover that author and journalist Simon Winchester had written a book about his travels in this little-known land. He was retracing the steps of a group of Dutch sailors who were shipwrecked off the coast of Korea in the 17th century, and the book describes his walk from the South of the country to the North Korean border-as far as he could go. It was written in the 1980s so I was aware that some detail was going to be outdated but still hoped to learn some more about the fascinating Korean culture that I had just had my first taste of.

Unfortunately I was disappointed with most of the book and it didn’t really provide the insight into the country that I was anticipating. I found the book disjointed and it was hard to get a feel of exactly where he was in the country, partly because he walked, rather than using any form of transport. As a result of this, much of the scenery and incidents he encounters along the way are described in detail but there are not enough descriptions of the people, culture, customs etc to provide any useful insight into the country. He does not visit most of the sights and attractions that the country has to offer, which would have been interesting to read about and similarly in Seoul he barely describes the city at all. Furthermore, many of the people that the author comes across in the book are non-Koreans, for example Irish missionaries and American servicemen, so they are seeing the country through a foreigner’s eyes, as is the author. He also meets several prostitutes and some tour guides along the way, neither or which provided a typical view of the country so as a result fails to explore Korean culture in any real depth. Several times the author makes sexual references to some of the women he meets on his travels, which I found to be rather tasteless and unnecessary.

One of the most interesting passages in the book was the description of ginseng, detailing its significance in Korean society and its health benefits. There were a few other interesting sections and anecdotes throughout, but if the rest of the book had been written in a similar style it would have a much more engaging and interesting read. By far the most interesting part of the book was the final part, when Winchester spends some time at the DMZ, near the border to North Korea. Although he was again predominantly with non – Koreans (American servicemen) while he was in this area, this section provides a fascinating insight into the history behind this massively fortified border area.

This book is a fairly quick, easy read with a spot of humour in parts, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone seeking to learn more about South Korea and its culture and people.

You can find this book on Amazon: Korea: A Walk Through The Land Of Miracles

Posted by bex76 12:32 Comments (0)

Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books

by Azar Nafisi

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The Author

Azar Nafisi is currently a professor of English Literature at Johns Hopkins University. Prior to 1997, she lived in Iran and taught English and American Literature at the University of Tehran, The Free Islamic University, and The University of Allemah Tabatabai.

The Introduction

Professor Nafisi possessed (and still possesses I imagine) a passion for English Literature, most notably the works of Vladimir Nabokov, Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Henry James. In 1995, she resigned her post at The University of Tehran in protest of the law requiring women to wear the veil. Unbowed by what she considered to be a horrible repression of women’s rights, she invited several of her favorite female students to her home to begin what would become a weekly book club to read and discuss books that she so cherished but were banned by the new hardcore Islamic Regime as being decadent Western nonsense. In her home, protected from the “morality squads”, she and her students were free to remove their veils and simply be themselves without the burden of judgment from their repressive government. Nafisi writes lovingly of these sessions, with admiration for the courage of her students. To continually defy the authority of the Islamic Republic meant great danger for these women, a danger they faced on a daily basis; being caught wearing makeup, nail polish, or colorful clothing under their veils, allowing too much skin to be seen, or simply being in public without the accompaniment of a male relative. The women were forced to weave their lives through periods of harsh repression and, at times, a loosening of the strict codes dictated by the Ruling Council. The weekly book club allowed this group to escape into literature, and through discussions of it, reconcile their lives in a world not entirely under their control.

The Review

It was very difficult for me to read this book without being angry, angry that in my very lifetime, the rights and privileges of ordinary people have been suspended by government officials who, to a Western eye, seem to have been determined to return their country to the Middle Ages. I was a university student in Chicago at the time the early part of this book took place, and I find it difficult to imagine the kind of repression that occurred at various universities in Tehran. The book recalls the ascension (and eventual death) of Ayatollah Khomeini to become Supreme Leader of Iran after the Revolution, the ability of professors to teach what they wished openly only to have those privileges revoked and brutally suppressed. Student demonstrations against the policies of the Ruling Council were summarily put down with arrests, torture, and murder. One of the few ways to escape the madness was literature, and Professor Nafisi was determined to hold on to one of the last vestiges of sanity, both for herself and her students. Her classes were filled with believers and non-believers in the Regime, and the discussions were both lively and subdued. Many students were afraid to openly discuss class topics for fear they would be labeled as subversive, while others would cite the characters in the books as evidence of Western decadence. There is so much more to write that I could fill many pages with this review, but I’ll spare you my poor prose.

Some of the less angry moments in the book for me were discussions between Nafisi and her friend, the man she called “my magician”. The man was a stabilizing factor in her life, allowing her to release some of the pain she carried. During one meeting, over coffee and chocolates, when she was particularly bitter over the most recent edicts issued from the government, her magician declared “You should stop blaming the Islamic Republic for all of our problems”. This simple statement struck a chord, a realization that we all make our own problems. We have the power, in whatever society we live, to be individuals and free, at least in our minds.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who wishes to be free, if nowhere else but their mind.

You can find this book at Amazon: Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books.

Posted by beerman 09:14 Archived in Iran Tagged books Comments (0)

The Lost Continent: Travels In Small-Town America

by Bill Bryson

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The Author & Introduction

During my time as a member of Travellerspoint, I have seen quite a few threads asking what books people read while traveling, what should someone read before traveling, what are member's favorite travel-related literary works, and so on. (A lot of "what" questions.) These requests were the reason the original TP Book Club thread was started in the Off Topic Forum. One author who always makes an early appearance is Bill Bryson. (Tway and I seem to trip over each other trying to beat each other to the proverbial posting punch where Bryson is concerned.) He is well-known for his sardonic wit and (non-fiction) travelogue style. Other Bryson works include: The Mother Tongue, Made In America, Neither Here nor There: Travels in Europe, A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail, I'm a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America After 20 Years Away and In A Sunburned Country.

The Review

Bill Bryson was born during 1951 in Des Moines, Iowa. Like most middle-class American families of the time, vacations revolved around the "road trip" across the US. Such trips would usually include historic battle fields and anything that would let you in for free. Having been born only a couple of years later (and in a similarly-sized Iowa town), I could relate to Mr. Bryson's descriptions of the over-heated car, long hours on the highway and not stopping to pee. (After all, wasn't that what coffee cans were really designed for - emptying your bladder on long road trips?!) But, that's not what this book is about...

Having fled the country of his origins, once he became of age, Bryson set down his roots in the UK. Now, almost 2 decades later, he leaves his family in London and returns to rediscover The Lost Continent of his youth. Equipped with only a Chevy Chevette, borrowed from his mother, Bryson sets out on a 13,978 mile journey across 38 of the 48 contiguous states. It is a journey centered on love, hate and home. It is also a journey of unexpected revelations.

Having been in several of the places Mr. Bryson visits, I don't always agree with his assessments. But, that doesn't mean he's right or I am wrong in our experiences. We just saw things differently. I absolutely recommend this book to anyone planning a trip to the US. I also suggest that you check things out for yourself and not trust Mr. Bryson's opinion. Remember, he's an American looking at things from an American point of view. (He has also moved back to the US.) Either way, it is a very entertaining read and makes me want to revisit some very old haunts.

Find this book on Amazon: The Lost Continent: Travels In Small-Town America

Posted by Isadora 13:19 Archived in USA Comments (3)

Take Me With You

by Brad Newsham

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Having read Brad Newsham’s first book ‘All the right places’ and thoroughly enjoying it, I was delighted to discover he had written a second book about his travels in the Philippines, India, Egypt, Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, and South Africa over the space of 100 days. This is a refreshingly different travel book however, as the author’s mission is to choose someone to visit him in America, at his expense, from the people he encounters on his trip.

Brad’s plan was hatched when he was a 22-year old backpacking through Afghanistan, and 14 years later as a taxi driver in San Francisco, he finally manages to achieve his ambition.

His mission to take someone home with him is interwoven subtly into the book, rather than dominating his day to day travel experiences. The people he meets are described in detail and with sensitivity, and he takes time to talk to and get to know many of them. The book is packed with interesting descriptions about the places he visits, and he has the balance between humour and the serious issues just right. He is constantly observant and honest about the bad times that go with travelling, such as his realisation that India is not as great as he found it during his first visit: his journal is revealing as he glances over it and reflects on some of his more negative observations about the country. Similarly, he is aware that he shouldn’t take travelling for granted and that he must enjoy and remember the $2.50 rooms and the 50 cent beers.

Brad travels frugally and is not looking forward to getting back to the rat- race at home in America and also realises that he would love to travel for much longer if he had the financial means to do so, things that many travellers will be able to relate to. It would be hard not to warm to Brad and his generous, humble nature.

The writing style could have been better, but I was fascinated throughout by everywhere that Brad visits, and intrigued as to who would be the lucky person chosen to visit him in America. I think many readers would be able to relate to his insights along the way. The end of the book is heart- warming as he describes who he chose and their experiences together in America. Earlier editions of the book did not include this epilogue because Brad’s plans took several years to come to fruition; it would have been a less than fitting end to the book if the reader did not find out who was chosen. Overall, a compelling and enjoyable read.

You can find this book on Amazon: Take Me With You

Posted by bex76 13:46 Comments (0)

Paradise Updated

by Mic Looby

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The Author

Through the kindness of Eric (dr. pepper) and the wonderful people of Affirm Press (Melbourne, Australia), I received a copy of Mic Looby's first offering as a novelist - Paradise Updated. Prior to this endeavor, Mr. Looby had been an author (Lonely Planet Myanmar (Burma)) and an editor (Lonely Planet Outback Australia) for guess who - yup - Lonely Planet. He is also well known for his illustrations in It's True! Frogs Are Cannibals (It's True!) by Michael J. Tyler and It's True! Animals Are Electrifying (It's True!) by Rick Wilkinson.

The Introduction

Welcome to SmallWorld™ - the Utopian sanctuary for travel guide authors and editors. Here is where your dream destinations are written down, catalogued, dated, updated and published for your reading pleasure. Here is where the fine line between fact and fiction also disappears in a haze of cost-cutting managerial decisions. Regardless, if there's a spot on this earth that someone wants to visit, you can be sure SmallWorld™ has an author on location to compile the complete travel guide just for you. Or, do they...

Welcome to Maganda. A country comprised of a small group of islands situated off the coast of South East Asia and virtually ignored by everyone except the young backpacking set - all carrying their copy of the travel guide (aka The Bible). The Bible is a lifetime's worth of work by SmallWorld's most notorious author, Robert Rind. He's a legend. A legend the publishers are eager to replace with just about anyone who is young, breathing and resembles a well-known actress. Who cares if she is inexperienced. She'll learn. Or, will she...

The Review

It took me awhile to actually get into this book but I'm very glad I kept reading. By the end, I was laughing hysterically with each turn of the page. You have a guide book publisher unwilling to pay an author's travel expenses because, "We can't afford to throw money at every guidebook author who wants to go travelling." That line alone forced me onward. Upon arriving in Maganda, the continual introduction to key characters (and finally) the infamous Robert Rind himself, had me hooked.

It is rumored that Paradise Updated is just a fictionalized representation of factual guide book publisher's tactics. I don't know and I don't really care. I can see the correlation with wanting to cut budgets, trying to appeal to broader (read younger) user base and altering a company's image. It happens daily around the world. But, it's the back story and the coming together of the key characters that make this book so enjoyable. Whether you believe the rumor or not, you will be wondering how Robert Rind has lasted as long as he has. And then there's poor Rudy...

The book is written in a travel guide-esque format. Bits from The Bible are interspersed at the end of chapters and chapters are also categorized in guide style. I recommend this book to anyone who has used a travel guide. I definitely recommend it to anyone thinking of becoming a travel guide writer. Kudos to Mr. Looby's first novel and I hope there is another on the horizon.

This book is not yet available on Amazon. Presently, it is for sale on the Affirm Press website: Paradise Updated

Posted by Isadora 13:09 Comments (0)

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