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Travelfish #415: Books worth reading!
50 books worth reading
The end is nigh! Well the end of 2020 at least. This is the final Travelfish newsletter of the year. Thanks all for sticking with it (and me!) through a year that does rank pretty high on the train wreck scale. I’ll be back in the second week of January.
As with last week’s issue, in which I selected a bunch of stories through the year I thought were standout reads, this week I am all about books.
What I did was last week I polled a bunch of smart people from a variety of fields, asking them what the best single book was they had read this year. The replies came in thick and fast. I’m sorry I couldn’t include all, but I needed to keep this newsletter under eighteen million words in length.
I’m going to need a bigger box. Koh Rong Samloen, Cambodia. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
This is not a list of travel books. Instead I’ve categorised them, perhaps not always fairly, into Humanity, Southeast Asia, Things are broken, Mayhem, Plague, Environment, Art, Mental health and, Far away (for some) lands. A few are my selections, but most are from others. Where possible I’ve found a review of the title as well.
In all cases I’ve linked to the book page on Book Depository—if you buy a book a small commission may be payable to us. Thank you.
So once again thanks for reading.
Lastly, a special thanks to Stuart Lodge at RoundTheWorld Flights, who continues to sponsor this newsletter year in year out—come rain, hail or plague. If you need a round the world ticket—hell I’d settle for a trip beyond the minimart at the moment, please drop him a line.
I hope you all have a great end of the year and bring on 2028!
Silly season virtual gifts
In case you missed it, I published the first 175 days of Couchfish in PDF version. They’re not quite as pretty as the real deal, but still, if you want to send someone 196 billion words of travel journaling, knock yourself out! You can download the guides here. They’re free!
On the subject of Couchfish, if you’d like to give someone a gift subscription, you can do so here. Gifts start at just US$7 per month.
Newsletters worth reading
So with no Travelfish newsletter for the next few weeks, what are you going to do about your empty email inbox? Here are some suggestions.
A daily fantasy itinerary through Southeast Asia. I’m sure you know about this one already right?! Paid and free flavours.
Sam’s Yoga Letter
What can one do with all their quarantine time? Yoga of course. Sam’s Yoga Letter touches on yoga, but can get pretty far out esoteric at times. Fortnightly–ish. Free.
Thai Island Times
If you’re into Thailand’s many islands, this belongs in your inbox. At least weekly issues. Free.
A fortnightly news–wrap and editorial on all things Cambodia. A handy resource for picking up news and angles that may not be hitting your regular news sources. Free.
Indonesian true crime, one case at a time. A monthly long read about unsolved murders, environmental corruption, Covid19 cover ups and more. Paid and free flavours.
Dari Mulut ke Mulut
Still my single “must read” wrap on Southeast Asia. Informative and at times, very funny. Paid and free flavours.
A weekly in depth look at issues taking place in Vietnam. Tends towards environmental. Both news wraps and editorial. Paid and free flavours.
We, the Citizens
Singaporean journalist Kirsten Han’s take on all things Singapore related. I find her death penalty coverage particularly solid. Paid and free flavours.
Another regional wrap, this weekly newsletter works to surface stories from greater Asia that are not getting the column inches they deserve. Paid and free flavours.
The world is on fire and this newsletter tracks the hows and whys and whats we should be doing about it. Paid and free flavours.
Books worth reading
OK, shall we get going on this beast of a list. As I mentioned above I’ve broken these out into sections to make the list a little less challenging. I’ve linked to the Twitter profile of whoever made the suggestion (unless they contacted me privately), the listing on Book Depository for each book, and a link to a review elsewhere online. I didn’t include all the suggestions as I received over one hundred all up. Sorry!
Satay on the way in Bandung. Photo: Sally Arnold.
The New York Times agrees:
“The wildlife scientist Delia Owens has found her voice in Where the Crawdads Sing, a painfully beautiful first novel that is at once a murder mystery, a coming-of-age narrative and a celebration of nature.”
Another suggestion from Kate was The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa. “Hauntingly beautiful,” she wrote, “both are books with unusual narratives and sublime writing, left me thinking about them months later.”
Meanwhile at The Guardian:
“Ogawa’s weightless and unadorned prose weaves a world where memory is always associative; we remember not just the object itself but what it conjures. Birds are byways to flight, lightness, quickness, youth, song, mornings, twilights, migrations. They partake in stories, paintings, metaphors and myths. Each object that is disappeared takes layers of personal and shared knowledge with it.”
Following on from Kate was another Ogawa pick, by Sheany, this time for The Housekeeper And The Professor. Sheany writes “This was such a beautiful (and fairly easy) read through and through. Who knew math could be so interesting?”
The Guardian agrees:
“The book as a whole is an exercise in delicate understatement, of the careful arrangement of featherlight materials into a surprisingly strong structure. The pure mountain air of number theory blows gently through all its pages, even if at one point there appears to be a blip in plausibility.”
“The terror Banham experienced in those moments is beyond comprehension, and yet the incredibly human, common thoughts of panic incite an immense sense of empathy in the reader. It reminds us this could happen to anyone.”
Pam Mandel’s debut novel, The Same River Twice, was one of my favourite reads of the year. A travel memoir, but a whole lot more. Pam writes:
“This is what it means when people say they love to travel,” I thought. My head was full of the sound of languages I didn’t know. I had seen the faces of hundreds of bodhisattvas on temple walls. I knew the thrill of seeing a truck slow down to pick us up. I had let the magnetic pull of adventure take me and in return I had fallen in love with everything strange and beautiful and unknown, with the sheer joy of discovering anything new.”
Writes Evie Breese: “Got to go with Convenience Store Woman, by Sayaka Murata, because Keiko is genuinely so weird and abnormal, but equally deeply relatable, and I've never come across another character like her.”
“As an outstanding store worker, Keiko believes she is a functioning member of society, but the joke, of course, is that society is never happy. Her family and friends continually prod at her about her lowly position and lack of a husband. Excruciating coffee morning scenes with female acquaintances are full of tribal politics, one-upmanship and barbed advice.”
The Guardian nails why this is a fascinating—and important—read:
“Forests have been felled in the interests of unmasking the murderer, but until now no one has bothered to discover the identity of his victims. The Five is thus an angry and important work of historical detection, calling time on the misogyny that has fed the Ripper myth.”
“Know My Name is a devastating, immersive memoir of her sexual assault and its aftermath. We live with Miller minute by minute, thinking and feeling with her. At points, particularly during the account of her testimony, it is hard to read it and breathe at the same time.”
Lambsearshoney picked Malcolm Gladwell’s Talking to Strangers, saying “It’s a weird old world we’re living in now and it’s useful to know that not everyone is what they seem, and that our own perceptions can fool us.” The New York Times is on the same page:
“Rather, Mr. Gladwell asks readers to rethink grim topics like police misconduct, child sexual assault, suicide and campus rape, all through the prism of our often disastrous instinct to trust that the people we meet are telling us the truth.”
Kids clowning around, Anlong Veng. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
“Veeraporn, who felt compelled to write this book after seeing the clashes between pro- and anti-government forces in Thailand in 2010, seems to suggest that, just like romanticising love, romanticising political leaders can lead to madness and delusion.”
A private suggestion for the best book on Timor Leste in the last 20 years: Beloved Land by Gordon Peake. “Mixture of travelogue, history and current affairs. It’s a bit dated as its six years old but still the best read going on Timor in the English language for yonks.”
The Monthly concurs:
“To Peake, Timorese politics only looked semi-coherent when he drew up family trees and marriage charts; as in most fledgling postcolonial nations, cronyism is politics. Even calling Timorese politics “corrupt” feels awkward – “corruption” implies a fall from grace, not a minefield of old loyalties that nobody wants to clear.”
Another private submission settled on Miss Burma by Charmaine Craig, upon which they write: “You'll probably get this recommended a lot but great fiction book on Burma, with heavy focus on Karen states and life in military dictatorship and Jewish lives in Rangoon.”
Writes The New York Times:
“Miss Burma” also serves as a much-needed recalibration of history, one that redresses the narrative imbalance by placing other ethnic, non-Burmese points of view at the center of its story.”
“If poor Malaysians like Ah Hock are often ignored in the narrative of go-go Asia, with its propulsive growth rates and plantations of skyscrapers, undocumented workers fare even worse. When recognized at all, they are blamed for petty crimes or for stealing jobs from citizens. Asian scorn is no different from the American variety.”
Chiming in from Ho Chi Minh City, Mike Tatarski nominated The Mountains Sing by Nguyen Phan Que Mai. Mike writes “Really great writing and also depicts parts of Vietnam’s recent history from a Vietnamese perspective that are rarely given attention in English. I was genuinely blown away by it—gripping, brutal and tender at the same time.”
“In depicting the dire consequences of war and Marxist ideology, which forced citizens and family members to become either traitors or patriots, The Mountains Sing affirms the individual's right to think, read, and act according to a code of intuitive civility, born out of Vietnam's fertile and compassionate cultural heritage.”
“I think that for me, coming from a place like Singapore, where everything is very orchestrated and controlled, I just wanted to imagine what it would be like for something like this order to be bureaucratized as well. So I think that the title is more an invitation for us to think through the systems of power that we live in and that remain invisible to us.”
Time for some offerings. Sri Maha Mariamman Temple, Kuala Lumpur. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
Things are broken
Jessica Lee kicks this section off with a huge shout-out for Mark O’Connell's Notes from an Apocalypse. Jessica writes: “he digs into end-times fears & comes up with a book both unsettlingly funny & terrifying. Weirdly, my most super-fun read of 2020.”
The New York Times agrees, writing:
“Some of the stops on this travelogue are so spectacularly scenic that I found myself envious, and not a little bit suspicious: Here was someone who had figured out a way to tour the world by writing about the end of it.”
Foreign Affairs backs this up, writing:
“In place of the arrogance of twentieth-century planners, the author recommends reliance on what he labels metis, a more practically and locally rooted kind of knowledge.”
Obviously if you’ve a dystopia/things are broken section, one must have Ballard, and so Chris Mitchell ventured forth with Ballard’s Super-Cannes. Chris says “The boredom of society collapsing into violence. Always a novelist of ideas, Ballard saw the trajectories we are living in now decades before—largely informed by his now-famous WW2 POW childhood incarceration and, later, the shock death of his wife.”
Writes The Guardian:
“Ballard's grotesqueries also hold the reader in their sway, thrown into relief by the lovingly evoked ambience of the old Riviera and a vanished cultural life hinted at by references to Saint-Exupéry and Graham Greene. That world is gone, replaced by identikit versions of Silicon Valley reproducing themselves across the globe, self-contained communities free to create their own morality.”
From Bangkok, Neil Shelley suggests The Anarchy by William Dalrymple, writing “It details the rise of the greatest corporate entity with unchecked powers that the world has ever known. It’s a long but entertaining read with a host of incredible historical characters.”
The Guardian concurs:
“However well-known these events may be to some—thanks not least to his own work—Dalrymple’s spirited, detailed telling will be reason enough for many readers to devour The Anarchy. But his more novel and arguably greater achievement lies in the way he places the company’s rise in the turbulent political landscape of late Mughal India.”
“A subtle thesis of the book is that business overtook religion in the 20th century. For most of human existence, who told you what to think? Preachers did. Religion did. But I think that, through advertising, business has displaced religion as the primary instructor of human deliverance.”
“McDonald’s was a space where they could be themselves on their own terms. It was a place to momentarily escape the drama and chaos of the streets, a place that allowed them to rejoin society on the same terms as everyone else.”
Writes The Guardian:
“But Schrödinger’s book contains something far more important than his attempt to fuse physics and biology. In that lecture 70 years ago, he introduced some of the most important concepts in the history of biology, which continue to frame how we see life.”
Writes The New York Times:
After the legal importation of slaves from outside the country ended in 1808, the spread of slavery into the states bordering the Gulf of Mexico would not have been possible without the enormous uprooting of people from Maryland and Virginia. Almost one million slaves, Baptist estimates, were transported to the cotton fields from the Upper South in the decades before the Civil War.
Writes Stephanie Zito: Winners Take All. “It asks really good questions on how we approach poverty and injustice, recognising the complexity of the issue without platitudes and quick solutions. It’s a mainstream book that makes you think.”
Hello Saigon. Photo: Cindy Fan.
Again writes Jessica Lee: “As you’ve asked for Middle East from me: Rania Abouzeid’s No Turning Back. A phenomenal account that lays bare the backroom-dealings and secret allegiances that betrayed the Syrian uprising. It’ll make you so angry, you’ll forget about the pandemic.”
“Abouzeid navigated this increasingly treacherous terrain with legendary courage as she wrote for Foreign Affairs and other publications, building the stories of the people in this book around long, repeated interviews and, often, long days and nights under fire alongside them. The result is a tremendous sense of intimacy with the victims and the violence that surrounds them.”
When you’re talking about crime, a billion of, well, anything counts. Robert M suggested Billion Dollar Whale, describing it as “a great insight into the 1MDB scandal and the disaster that is Malaysian politics”. I loved this quote from The New Yorker review of the book:
“The high point came when Britney Spears jumped out of a giant birthday cake wearing a skimpy gold outfit. The whole thing is so tacky and over the top it almost seems made up.”
Writes The Guardian:
“You don’t read Apeirogon so much as feel it, as the particular tragedies of Bassam and Rami are lived out in an ever-present moment of loss.”
I read Ghosts of the Tsunami by Richard Lloyd Parry very recently, during a short beach break. I’d had plans to surf all day, but all I did was read this book instead. Engrossing. Captivating. Upsetting. Richard Lloyd Parry at his very best.
Writes The Guardian:
“The result is a compassionate and piercing look at the communities ravaged by the tsunami, which claimed more than 99% of the day’s casualties of 18,500—the greatest single loss of life in Japan since the atomic bombing of Nagasaki.”
It is time to get outa town. On the Nam Kading, Laos. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
Tis the season for plague reading, and Claire Baxter’s tip for Pale Rider by Laura Spinney is topical. Claire writes: “It’s about the 1918 flu pandemic & by coincidence I read it back in Jan but it has been really interesting to have that background and see how the year has panned out.”
The Guardian hammered down on the bleak:
“There had been pandemics before, notably the Russian flu of the 1890s, which killed a million people, but nothing on this extraordinary scale. Bloated corpses clogged rivers; bells never ceased tolling for the dead; and smoke blocked out the sunlight for days as the unburied were cremated in huge funeral pyres.”
Samantha Brown chipped in three titles, but Leave The World Behind by Rumaan Alam was the best fit. Writes Sam: “Something is going on out there in New York, and probably the rest of America but the family on an isolated holiday and their rental property's owners, who join them in refuge, are not sure what. This book pulses with foreboding, and though it was written before the pandemic, seems strangely related to it.”
The New Yorker was also well into it, writing:
“His achievement is to see that his genre’s traditional arc, which relies on the idea of aftermath, no longer makes sense. Today, disaster novels call for something different, a recognition that we won’t find a new normal, even if we’ve hoarded our Duracells and tucked ourselves behind sturdy walls in forested hideaways.”
Keren Lavelle is a wrap on The Animals In That Country by Laura Jean McKay. “It is a gripping eco sci-fi about a global pandemic which enables humans to understand animals, with a grumpy alkie grandmother lead character.”
Writes The Guardian:
“Her writing about people, meanwhile, is filthy, fresh and funny; this is prose on high alert, hackles up and teeth bared in every sentence. The novel becomes both a stirring attempt to inhabit other consciousnesses and a wry demonstration of the limits of our own language and empathy.”
For those of us who lived through the early days of the Aids crisis, there are more than a few parallels between then and now. That made Lana Willocks suggestion of And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts all the better. Writes Lana, “an in depth look into the Aids crisis from the late 70s to mid-80s and the politics, fear, & desperate struggle to find a cause & cure. Really puts the current pandemic into perspective!” Indeed.
The Irish Times, writes:
“We know you don’t catch it from shaking hands or sharing a seat on a bus. We didn’t know that then. And The Band Played On, written from the front line in 1987, without the cool distancing of hindsight, is a salutary reminder of a time which, for now, has passed.”
Thailand isn’t just big cities. In Khao Yai National Park. Photo: David Luekens.
“English Pastoral is refreshingly non-partisan: farming is “shaped by a host of powerful external forces”, and we are all, whatever we choose to eat, in some way complicit in this system.”
Greg McCann suggested Owls of the Eastern Ice, by Jonathan Slaght, set in the Russian Far East. Greg describes it as “Old-school science/adventure conservation in a little-known corner of the world, beautifully written, with human portraits as good as descriptions of nature.”
This, in The Guardian, made me laugh:
“How hard could it be?” he writes, as he begins his research. Quite hard, it turns out. There are floods, roadblocks, storms, wildfires, vehicles sinking through ice, malfunctioning technologies, night-long subzero vigils on riverbanks, hangovers from drinking industrial ethanol, and a whole cavalcade of fascinating and sometimes criminal associates.”
“Captains of outlaw ships inflict capital punishment and fishermen frequently kill each other in brawls. Impunity is the dominant theme of this book. ”
“At times, it’s easy to forget you’re reading a novel exploring the consequences of a species extinction—instead, you’ve become invested in the lives of the people whose stories it follows.”
From bees to trees, Liz Sinclair has The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben. Liz writers, “Mind blowing to think that all this other species communication is going on around us and humans are totally oblivious.”
I loved this line in The Guardian review:
“City trees are like street kids—isolated and struggling against the odds without strong roots.”
Street art, Sumbawa Besar, Indonesia. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
Artist Elizabeth Briel chimed in with Still Life: Ecologies of the Modern Imagination at the Art Museum by Fernando Dominguez Rubio. Elizabeth writes:
“It shows we experience artworks during a specific period of their disintegration, art objects as process rather than final product. Got me looking at what we make in new ways.”
Looking after my noodle. Singapore. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
I’ve suffered from bad sleep patterns for decades, something that has unfortunately veered from bad to totally wretched over the last few years. I found Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker to be an important and very helpful read. If being sleep challenged is your thing, read it.
“If you want an effective distillation of a science that reaches deep into the frontiers of consciousness and identity—or if you simply want to keep yourself up at night worrying about all the sleep you’re not getting—this is a good place to start.”
Sticking with my noodle, Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer strides into the science or remembering everything. Why is it I can remember my phone number from 1990 but not what I had for lunch yesterday? I forget if this book had all the answers, but those that I can remember were good.
Writes The New York Times:
“What snags the cells of our brains are disgusting, bizarre and novel images.” Uh huh.
I saw author Rhik Samadder speak at the Ubud Writer and Reader Festival last year and was so moved by his eloquence and bravery, I went up and introduced myself later to thank him. I opened my mouth to say thank you and started crying. Jeez. In I Never Said I Loved You Samadder picks up an insect and writes, thinking about death: “We sat there until clouds gathered themselves, and the sky darkened. The 14,000 facets of his eyes saw nothing, and I knew he wasn’t coming back. None of us are.” Some of it is funny too!
“And yet while a lesser book covering the same material would be branded a misery memoir, I Never Said I Loved You is shot through with vitality and life in its full-spectrum absurdity.”
Exploring Sabah, Malaysia. Photo: Sally Arnold.
Far away (for some) lands
Writes The Guardian:
“His novel contains some of the finest poetic descriptions of Guyana's landscape I have ever read. The wettened stars, the floating drizzle or rain blowing in lilac gusts over rice fields, the trombone of cows from a soaked pasture—all these and more capture the essence of Guyana, which is water.”
“A trombone of cows”. Love it.
Indonesian Medievalist Alex West noted he hadn’t finished any books this year (too much Tweeting clearly!), but wrote “I found the late Thomas Allsen’s The Steppe and the Sea excellent. Just haven’t reached the end yet...It’s about pearls in the Mongol empire (and in a few other places).”
Mark Lowerson reads more books than I eat hot breakfasts, but Waiting for the Barbarians by JM Coetzee leapt out at me. Writes Mark “slim volume, containing so much on colonialism, climate change, racial tensions. He’s so incisive on these issues in almost everything he writes, but he rarely sets his stories in an identifiable time or place.”
“Mau not only proved that it was indeed possible to navigate using the stars and sun and the reading of ocean swells (not the same as waves), but that these techniques could be taught; Mau taught a Hawaiian man, Nainoa Thompson, who taught others. The knowledge, so close to being lost through Westernization, lives on.”
“It is 1928 and Berlin is a modern Babylon, bursting with artistic creativity as well as unprecedented sexual freedom, yet also witnessing of virulent anti-Semitism, anti-immigration, and anti-gay fervor, and street battles between political extremists on the right and the left. The Weimar Republic is nearing its end, and a monster called Hitler is about to make his appearance.”
Pam Mandel recommended Sharks in the Time of Saviors. It’s fiction/magic realism, set in Hawaii, about a Hawaiian family and also some of the most real writing about Hawaii I’ve ever read. Absolutely takes you there.
Writes The New York Times:
Since the day humans began telling stories, we’ve strung countless narratives on our attempts to escape the past and find peace with the present. It is our collective cargo, and Washburn knows it. This may be his debut, but he proves himself an old hand at dissecting the ways in which places — our connections to them, our disconnections from them — break us and remake us.
Caroline Mills noted that she “only had access to books left behind by guests. Most have been terrible, but I’ve enjoyed them all just for the luxury of escapism. Best was the Godfather of Kathmandu. I was really angry before I read that book, and then I wasn’t. That's all I want from a book this year.”
Writes The New Yorker:
“A mood of manic farce buoys this convoluted tale, which includes a deft social analysis of a Thai women’s prison, Tantric sex, and hot chocolate laced with high-tech pharmaceuticals.”
“That is not how you should drink cognac. You take your glass in the hollow of the hand, you warm it, you rotate it with a circular movement so that the spirit gives off its aroma. Then you carry it to your nostrils and inhale… and then, my dear sir, you put down your glass and talk about it.”
Phew! Still reading?!
Thanks again for supporting Travelfish through reading and sharing both this newsletter and the site.
I hope you have a great silly season and see you again in 2022!