Summer reading, in a new place
| By Nora FitzGerald International Herald Tribune |
SATURDAY, JULY 30, 2005
Window on the Russian soul
The reading list for a posting to Russia inspires humility. Some longtime Russia experts will give you a list of 300 books - to start - from Tolstoy and Turgenev to the doorstopping, epic histories of Orlando Figes. Others shrug and say, "Just read Chekhov." My Russian literary sherpa is the grandniece of Tolstoy, Tatyana Tolstaya. Whether she is writing about the poet Joseph Brodsky or her girlhood suspicion of Americans, she offers up a "belyie nochi," or white night, on the Russian soul. Her fiction has been compared to that of Gogol and Nabokov, but it is her collection of essays, "Pushkin's Children: Writing on Russia and Russians," that readied me for the historical sweep and massive scale of Russia. Her humor gave me ample sense of Russians' warm intelligence and the depths of their inferiority-superiority complex.
China? Take books with you
The best literary advice to someone getting ready for a posting to China is this: If you want to read certain books, take them with you. Books that are controversial or critical of Communist Party luminaries are banned or simply made unavailable in China, though some books are sold underground.
One of these is "Serve the People," by Yan Lianke, which is available only in Chinese. In it, an obedient soldier in the Chinese People's Liberation Army provides sexual services to his commander's wife during the Cultural Revolution. In one scene, the lovers are swept into a sexual fervor by smashing Mao Zedong busts and tearing apart Mao's Little Red Book. The authorities in China have banned the novella, though it has spread widely over the Internet. In the forthcoming "Mao: The Untold Story," Jung Chang, author of the sublime memoir "Wild Swans," and her husband, Jon Halliday, have written the most scathing biography of Mao to date. And it won't be found anywhere in China. Mao, by the authors' account, was a cultural wrecking ball, a ruthless opium pusher and schemer directly responsible for 70 million deaths. The book, in English, will be available in October.
Travels with Stevenson
The Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson was an enthusiastic expatriate. Stevenson, who fought tuberculosis all his life, moved across continents seeking climates that would help keep his illness at bay. He clearly made the best of it, proclaiming in "Travels with a Donkey in Cévennes," his great travelogue, "I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move." For the child who is a more reluctant expat, Stevenson's poem "Travel," included in "A Child's Garden of Verses," is a thrilling elbow-in-the-ribs to take leave of the "dusty dining-room" and embrace the world. It begins with a call to arms, or at least to an atlas:
I should like to rise and go
Where the golden apples grow; -
Where below another sky
Parrot islands anchored lie
From there, Stevenson prods his young reader to explore bazaars in "Eastern cities" and venture "Where the Great Wall round China goes."
- Holly Hubbard Preston
Path of the trailing spouse
"People tend to think that expat wives live in luxury compounds, drink a lot of gin and have affairs, so it's not surprising that we don't get much sympathy." From that auspicious opening to the closing words 292 pages later - "we are moving on soon" - Brigid Keenan, the wife of a British diplomat, perfectly captures the life of anyone who has ever moved abroad for a spouse's career.
In "Diplomatic Baggage: The Adventures of a Trailing Spouse," Keenan - a Sunday Times fashion editor in the 1960s who gave up her successful career to follow her husband with their children - traces the many details of everyday family life over nearly three decades in, among other places, Syria, Kazakhstan, Gambia, Trinidad, India and Barbados. Her emotional accounts of raising children far from relatives and dealing with those first lonely days in a new country will make trailing spouses the world over both laugh and cry as they remember their own "Keenan moments." - Jennifer Conlin
A guide to playing with Chinese food
Ordering meals in China based on photographs often ends in disappointment: soups of meatless chicken necks or bobbing fish heads. So it helps to understand what's being cooked - although anyone who ventures to decipher a Chinese menu will soon find that literal translations make no sense.
With more than 10,000 different dishes, it takes time to learn the secrets of Chinese gastronomy, like knowing a "grease explode flower blossom" is really a peanut, or "fish fragrant pork" has nothing to do with fish scent, but refers instead to garlic and ginger, the flavoring traditionally used in cooking fish. The names of Chinese dishes blend folklore, language and tradition.
"Swallowing Clouds: A Playful Journey Through Chinese Culture, Language, and Cuisine," stands alone in offering insights into the nuances of Chinese cuisine and its etymology. The author, A. Zee, offers an explanation for the name hoisin, the soy-based sauce typically used with Beijing duck, which translates to "fresh and flavorful sea food" but is actually a fruity or spicy sauce. Zee writes that it was invented by creative inland people "who had never tried seafood before but tried to imagine what fresh seafood tasted like."
- R. Scott Macintosh
French femininity explained
The French woman does not walk. She glides, her signature scent trailing her like an afterthought. She is reed thin but tucks into her crème brulée with enviable abandon. Worst of all, there's no way to describe her other than a certain je ne sais quoi. Thankfully, there is "Entre Nous: A Woman's Guide to Finding Her Inner French Girl," in which Debra Ollivier spells out the mysteries that could otherwise take a lifetime to unlock. How does the French girl differentiate between dating and an aventure - loosely speaking, a fling - and why is she comfortable with nudity on the beach but not with calling co-workers by their first names?
Rather than confirm stereotypes or merely describe her new compatriates, Ollivier, a seasoned expat, considers underlying reasons. She writes, for instance, that "French kings and queens were jewelry junkies. They wore big outrageous crowns, chunky medallions, slinky bracelets, and jeweled earrings. No wonder the French girl instinctively knows how to accessorize." - Roxana Popescu
Why Britons are like that
Some books are dated the moment they come out, and some express enduring truths. "Notes
From a Small Island," by Bill Bryson, fits squarely into the latter category. Ignore the fact that the book came out a decade ago: The humor about the British in its pages is as funny and fresh today as it was in 1995.
Take the opening passage of the book, on how the British give directions - which anyone who lives there will tell you is, as the natives say, spot on: "You know that lay-by outside Warminster, the one with the grit box with the broken handle?" "You know, just past the turnoff for Little Puking but before the B6029 mini-roundabout." "Not the first left turning but the second one, there's a lane between two hedgerows - they're mostly hawthorn but with a little hazel mixed in."
Bryson, an American, lived in Britain for nearly two decades, and his love of the country and its people rings clear. It also gives him the standing, and the license, to write things like, "Nothing gives the English more pleasure, in a quiet but determined sort of way, than to do things oddly." - Jennifer Conlin