Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts – 5 stars (borrowed from Danielle)
Shantaram has truly captured my heart. Roberts' ability to delve into the underbelly of Indian society and describe the heart of the people who live there is not only beautiful but deeply inspiring. While he is guilty of the occasional platitude, he is the writer you hope to someday be friends with so you can see how he'd describe you on paper. His writing is eloquent and extremely thought-provoking and all the more unbelievable because it's based on true events.
The Soccer War by Ryszard Kapuscinski – 3 stars (borrowed from Danielle)
Somehow the serious disjointedness of this book works without being too distracting. Arguably Kapuscinski has a death wish that makes you both respect him and thinks he’s totally crazy and the outcome is that his stories are thought-provoking, depressing and completely inspiring. A good book for anyone who is considering getting to know war events or political uprisings from a personal perspective.
History of Love by Nicole Krauss – 3 stars (borrowed from Danielle)
For me this was a poor man’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which means the writing is good and the mixture of sadness and hope compelling but my heart already belongs to ELIC. Highly recommended for anyone who hasn’t read ELIC or doesn’t remember it clearly.
The Little Book by Selden Edwards – 3 stars (borrowed from Danielle)
I love all the cyclical aspects of time travel and the way it makes my head spin with chicken and the egg dilemmas. Unfortunately, this book went from a 4 to a 3 rather quickly when the Copperfieldian conveniences kept stacking up.
A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby – 3 stars (picked up at Mekong Cafe in Jinghong, China in exchange for Black Swan Green)
Hornby is a master of witty dialogue and the interaction of the four main characters in this book is hilarious.
Black Swan Green by David Mitchell – 3 stars (picked up at Banna Cafe in Jinghong, China in exchange for Lonely Planet Japan)
This is no Cloud Atlas (although Eva Crommelynck makes an appearance!) but this is still an enjoyable read covering the angst of early teenage years. Mitchell really has a love, and mastery, of words which makes his books so fun to read.
Tess of the D’Ubervilles by Thomas Hardy – 3 stars (kindle)
Poor Tess. Despite showing super-human restraint against the continual advances of the despicable Alec D’Uberville, not even a saint could have withstood him forever under the circumstances. Indeed, for such an innocent and sweet person, the world seemed awfully pitted against her. Certainly worth the read, after which we can discuss the irony of Mr. Clare’s forgiveness timetables for Tess’s two “crimes.”
Seven Years in Tibet by Heinrich Harrer – 3 stars (kindle = no more interesting stories about where my books come from)
There’s nothing glamorous about Harrer’s writing style, but this narrative of his time in Tibet is a gripping one, especially when he starts delving into the particulars of daily life and his interactions with the Dalai Lama. This book is a must-read for anyone wanting an inside look at Tibet before Chinese occupation.
Blood River by Tim Butcher – 3 stars (swapped for The God Delusion when I left the Truck)
I knew virtually nothing about the Congo before reading this book and Butcher does a great job of weaving the historical aspects of its original discovery and colonization with the state of affairs when he visited in 2004. It is a stark picture he paints – one of corruption, anarchy and lawlessness. As he points out time and time again, under Belgian rule the Congo River was harnessed into a workable waterway that connected towns easily and encouraged trade. Now it is all but un-navigable, creating a unique place where the older generation has seen more progress than the younger.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brönte – 2 stars (picked up at the YHA hostel in Buenos Aires, Argentina in exchange for Freedom)
This is quite possibly the most depressing love story I’ve ever read, if it can even be qualified as a love story at all. Heathcliff is completely unredeemable – meting out vengeance on guilty (using the term loosely) and innocent parties alike. His viciousness and unreasonableness are so exaggerated that they’d be comical if they didn’t affect the people around him so completely. The “happily ever after” ending also feels a little too contrived and convenient.
Moon Palace by Paul Auster – 2 stars (swapped for To Kill a Mockingbird and My Name is Red when I left the Truck)
Parts of this book are enjoyable to read, but I just can’t love Auster. The tone of writing is inconsistent and I keep asking myself if my favorite passages were concepts borrowed from his wife’s book The Blindfold.
A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro (picked up at The Sleeping Camel in Bamako, Mali in exchange for To Kill a Mockingbird) – 3 stars
A cryptic but compelling story of guilt and loss and a startling portrayal of how easy it is to distort history by tampering with your memories.
My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk (purchased at the London Gatwick airport) – 3 stars
You’ll appreciate My Name is Red best if you prepare yourself for a book that is three parts art history to two parts fiction. Pamuk does a beautiful job of bringing the lost art of the Istanbul miniaturists to life. His tale of murder and intrigue among the miniaturists often takes a back seat to the historical aspects of the times which unfortunately makes the book tedious at times. Not the best introduction to Pamuk.
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (purchased at the London Gatwick airport) – 4 ½ stars
This book has a little bit of something for everyone. With interweaving stories that span generations and genres, the overall theme of the capacity for vice or virtue is told with skill and humor. Highly recommended.
Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel (borrowed from Aileen Roberts on the truck) – 3 stars
Martel really has a way of pulling the rug out from under you (Life of Pi, anyone?). Continuing with the theme of using animals to represent deeper themes, Beatrice and Virgil is a well-written book with another surprise ending. I can’t really say anything else without giving it away…
The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins (purchased at the London Gatwick airport) – 4 stars
This is a very thought-provoking book even for those people who already consider themselves atheists or agnostics (although if you start the book an agnostic and don’t finish as an atheist, I’ll be surprised). It’s obvious, however, that agnostics and atheists are not Dawkins' target audience and for that reason his numerous oversimplifications are somewhat forgivable.
The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad (bought in Georgetown, Guyana at Austin’s Bookstore) – 3 stars
For those people who found Heart of Darkness abstruse and laborious, it might be worth picking up The Secret Agent just to get a sense of Conrad’s range. It’s not exactly a page-turner, but the writing is engaging, the characters simultaneously inept yet totally ordinary and the themes of terrorism and anarchy almost seem more applicable today than they would have in 1886.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (picked up in Addo, South Africa in exchange for Five Little Pigs) – 4 stars
It was easy to see why three people on our overland truck independently told me that To Kill a Mockingbird is their favorite book. Not since Hans Hubberman (The Book Thief) have I met a character so utterly suited to being a father without even knowing it. Atticus Finch is honest, patient and unassuming and Scout and Jem flourish under his wing. Lee paints the hypocrisy of the supporting characters in ways that are obvious without being pedestrian or preachy. A delightful read.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence (bought in Georgetown at Austin’s Bookstore) – 3 stars
The back summary warned me about the copious use of four-letter words, but it was still surprising given Lawrence wrote it in 1928. In comparison with Madame Bovary, the actual affair was less shocking to me (it seems only fair, given her husband’s impotence, that Lady Chatterley find a sexual replacement), but the directness with which Lawrence discusses various sexual attitudes more closely resembles the language found in modern romance novels. When not talking about sex, Lawrence manages to weave discussions of the blight of industrialism, the pressure of loving someone outside your social class and the ease with which women like Mrs. Bolton can manipulate weak-minded men.
Wings of the Dove by Henry James (picked up at Oasis Café in Georgetown, Guyana in exchange for the The Invisible Man) – 3 stars
James has a way of writing that is beautiful and absolutely…exhausting. With rare exception, the characters never say what they mean and in order to piece it together you have to read every sentence painstakingly. Kate Croy’s character is by far the most interesting and it is a pity that after the first few chapters in her voice it never fully returned to her.
A Wedding in December by Anita Shreve (picked up at Hostel Sweet Hostel in Puerto Iguazu, Argentina in exchange for The English Patient) – 2 stars
Apart from the cheesy, trite and simplified writing (which I expected from a book with this title), it’s weird to read a book that glamorizes infidelity in not one character but six of the seven main characters. It is totally okay to cheat on your spouse if it’s with someone you knew from highschool?? Also, why is there a story within a story? There’s the making/plot of three separate books here, that separately might have been good to read, but combining them all together was a big mistake.
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen (picked up at Platypus Hostel in Bogotá, Colombia in exchange for Farewell to Arms) – 3 stars
I’m extraordinarily sorry to say that I was disappointed with Freedom. Not because of the writing, which is compelling and witty, but because I wish Franzen would use his talent to write about something other than the discontented middle class. I already read The Corrections, after all…
Five Little Pigs by Agatha Christie (picked up at Zentrum Boutique Hostel in Buenos Aires, Argentina in exchange for Brick Lane) – 3 stars
Agatha Christie is a master of the mystery novel for a reason. This book had me guessing until the end.
Love, Again by Doris Lessing (picked up at Zus & Zo in exchange for Tai-Pan – what? Tai-Pan is big enough to justify a 2-1 trade) – 3 stars
Unfortunately, the story within the story in Love, Again was the most compelling part of the book. As the discussion of Julie Vairon and her travails fades into the narrative, the overall plot drags a bit. I enjoyed Lessing’s commentary on the weight of young heartbreak but overall considered this book only average.
The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje (picked up at The Dreamer Hostel in Santa Marta, Colombia in exchange for The Bridge over the River Kwai) – 4 stars
This is an extremely rewarding read if you can get past the choppy writing style at the beginning. As Ondaatje delves deeper into the lives of his characters, especially Almásy and Kip, you’ll be unable to put this book down. Ondaatje rarely mentions the war directly, but its tragedy is felt poignantly throughout. Oh, and I just saw the movie adaptation of this book and I. Am. OUTRAGED.
A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway (picked up at The Pitstop Hostel in Medellín, Colombia in exchange for The Hunchback of Notre Dame) – 2 stars
Knowing Farewell to Arms is semi-autobiographical makes me like it more, but it doesn’t change the fact that I found the love story between Catherine Barkley and Frederic Henry completely unconvincing. Hemingway sometimes takes understatement too far.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo (bought in Georgetown at Austin's Bookstore) – 2 stars
Sometimes I wonder why Hugo bothers to write fiction at all when it is obvious he’d rather be writing history books. If you can get past the entire chapters on architecture or Parisian history, the actual story is an interesting one. Most adaptations of this classic story have manipulated the depiction of certain characters (yes, I’m talking about you Disney) and it’s good to discover them as Hugo originally envisioned them.
The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells (a backpack original) – 3 stars
A good book to read if you consider invisibility your superpower of choice. Wells focuses on all the pitfalls of the condition, not the benefits, and this makes for an interesting read.
Brick Lane by Monica Ali (picked up at Rima Guesthouse in Georgetown, Guyana in exchange for A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian) – 2 stars
Ali’s depiction of a Pakistani girl’s adjustment to life in London after her arranged marriage and the dangers of believing in fate is a good read but not nearly as artful as other books that cover the same topics. I’d skip this and read Jhumpa Lahiri’s collection of short stories called Unaccustomed Earth which does a better job of portraying almost identical dilemmas.
The Bridge over the River Kwai by Pierre Boulle (picked up at Oasis Café in Georgetown, Guyana in exchange for The Time Machine) – 4 stars
Clearly a classic for a reason. Boulle’s depiction of Colonel Nicholson, British superiority and the sometimes comical actions of the troops, make this a delightful and even nail-biting read.
A Burnt-Out Case by Graham Greene (picked up at Zus & Zo in Paramaribo, Suriname in exchange for Tai-Pan) – 3 stars
This had all the hallmarks of a Graham Greene book: a jaded main character, people to despise because of their short-sightedness, the clash of religion with atheism, etc. Not his best work (for that stick to The Quiet American or The End of the Affair), but overall a good read.
A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka (picked up at Pousada Ventania in Joanes, Brazil in exchange for South of the Border, West of the Sun) – 3 stars
A surprisingly delightful book about a recent widow marrying a 36-year old gold-digger from the Ukraine and the way it unites his two feuding daughters. The underlying storylines from World War II and the shear madness of the father’s actions make this more than just a good beach book.
Mansfield Park by Jane Austen (purchased in Salvador, Brazil) – 4 stars
No one is more adept at creating despicable characters through mere innuendo and conversation than Jane Austen. Her depiction of Aunt Norris and Mr. Crawford is no exception. At times, Fanny’s character is over-simplified and the ending seems a bit too convenient, but overall a good book. Well-worth the read.
Friend of the Devil by Peter Robinson (read while staying at the Mato Grosso Hotel in the Pantanal, Brazil) – 2 stars
Robinson tries to distract from his predictable storyline by including references proving he’s well-read and by constantly making sentimental references to English culture. Only to be read if you are stuck in the middle of nowhere with no other choices.
The Time Machine by H.G. Wells (a backpack original) – 3 stars
It’s impossible to dislike any book that’s only 100 pages. This is an entertaining read containing a unique image of the future.
South of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami (a backpack original) – 3 stars
Having really enjoyed Murakami in the past, I admit I was a bit disappointed by South of the Border, West of the Sun. The topic of discontent is an interesting one, but while the writing is sometimes quite beautiful and thought-provoking, it simply doesn't approach the higher-quality of his other works (i.e. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle).
The Bad Girl by Mario Vargos Llosa (stolen from Claudia in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil) – 1 star
This book reads as if it is someone's first attempt at writing -- much like what you'd expect from your grandmother trying her hand at a biography. This would be charming from my grandma but isn't from a professional author. However, having not read this in the original Spanish, I'm willing to admit this could be a translation issue. Or, having read no other Vargas Llosa with which to compare, I'm also willing to consider that perhaps his writing style in this book was a total departure from his usual style in which case I'd be forced to admit he is a genius for being able to write so convincingly as a first-time biographer would write.
Tai-Pan by James Clavell (a backpack original) – 4 stars
James Clavell is a master of historical fiction. While I didn’t enjoy Tai-Pan as much as Shogun, Clavell’s depiction of the founding of Hong Kong, including the forces driving trade between the Chinese and the English and the laugh-out-loud interactions the Tai-Pan has with his mistress, Mai Mai, makes for a compelling read.