We’re nearing the end of those “lazy, crazy, hazy days of summer,” as Nat King Cole put it in his 1963 pop hit. The days have been especially lazy, crazy and hazy for those of us who just graduated college. Plenty of time for reading! No syllabus necessary.
My picks have taken me to the far-flung countries of China, North Korea, Cuba, Russia, and Ukraine. Also a little closer to home, New York City. Why bother with some graduation-celebration backpacking trip through Europe, when I can travel all over the world, through cultures and time periods, without leaving Little Tokyo?
After this, I’m visiting France with Madame Bovary, or maybe I’ll travel around Latin America with Che Guevara and his Motorcycle Diaries.
Tai-pan by James Clavell (1986)
Last summer, I spent weeks reading Shogun, Clavell’s bestseller epic of feudal Japan. No, I haven’t seen the TV miniseries starring Richard Chamberlain, and don’t plan to. The book was vivid enough! So vivid that it made me sob like a lunatic at times. I appreciated the chance to learn about Japanese culture and history – the book is based on actual events. This summer, I tackled another from Clavell’s “Asian Saga.” Tai-pan focuses on China, and how one daring foreigner endeavored to transform Hong Kong into a mecca for English traders. As it did. Just as compelling and informative as Shogun.
Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick (2010)
What has been going on in North Korea in recent years? In politics? The daily lives of ordinary people? Everything is shrouded in mystery. So much so that my “Communism in a Post-Communist World” class at Occidental barely covered North Korea, except to watch “The VICE Guide to North Korea.” Nothing to Envy, by LA Times foreign correspondent Barbara Demick, tackles the information gap. The book explores the lives of several average North Koreans in astonishing, eye-opening detail. Although non-fiction, it reads like a novel. Demick’s expert knowledge of North Korean politics provides the perfect backdrop.
RUSSIA AND UKRAINE
Wolves Eat Dogs by Martin Cruz Smith (2006)
I’ve travelled with Martin Cruz Smith before. To KGB-driven Soviet Union in Gorky Park, the chilly Arctic sea in Polar Star, and “Special Period” Cuba in Havana Bay. Investigator Arkady Renko has been the dry-humored friend and hero in each adventure, exposing corruption and solving murders. Wolves Eat Dogs brings us to Russia shortly after the fall of communism. This time, the intrigue centers on Chernobyl in Ukraine. Even in 2004, 18 years after the 1986 nuclear plant disaster, effects linger. In the soil, wildlife, and local residents. And even within those who were seemingly un-involved, Renko finds out.
Ruins by Achy Obejas (2009)
A marvelous, rainbow-colored glass lamp sheds light in a tiny Havana apartment where the walls appear poised to crumble at any second. For Usnavy, a poor Cuban struggling to support his wife and daughter, it is a beacon of hope. He isn’t willing to give up faith in Fidel Castro’s Revolution, despite the hardships wreaked by the “Special Period” following the fall of communism abroad. Could fixing up the lamp help Usnavy fix up his life? When he has nothing to eat but blanket shreds disguised as meat? (New meaning to “ropa vieja.”)
Trading With the Enemy: A Yankee Travels Through Castro’s Cuba by Tom Miller (1992)
Why does travel writer Tom Miller, a self-described “Yankee,” care about Cuba? In his words:
“I went to Cuba because I was curious; because no one agrees on its strengths; because I’d read so much about it; because it is forbidden; because it’s heartbreakingly lovely; because so many people have championed it while so many others have abandoned it; because Cubans make great music and aromatic cigars; because they’ve thumbed their noses at their former patron for more than three decades; because I’d grown weary of writing about Latin American “democracies” where forlorn illiterate campesinas sit on city street corners selling combs, nail clippers, and undervalued handicrafts while their malnourished barefoot youngsters turn their palms up and say “gimme” instead of learning how to hold a pencil or read a sentence; because of its rich literary tradition; because my favorite players on the Washington Senators in the 1950s were Cuban; because I’m an incurable romantic; because we still have a navy base there; because Cuban women are astute and alluring; because in the last five hundred years of travel writing few cities in the world have been so effusively praised as Havana; because Teddy Roosevelt led the charge up San Juan Hill; because I liked Our Man in Havana and The Old Man and the Sea; because I got a kick out of Desi Arnaz; because I was distrustful of Cuba’s bahsers and its cheerleaders; because I liked the twinkle in Fidel’s eyes; because I’d ever been to a Communist country; because I wanted to learn to rumba; because Columbus landed there; because it has hundreds of miles of unspoiled beaches; because of its mystique.”
The book runs 335 pages with that sense of wonder and fascination for the quotidian. Miller doesn’t want to comment on Cuban politics or social realities (oh, those long lines at the “Socialismo o Muerte” bakery!) — just explore the vicissitudes of daily life through the eyes of the locals. Although the book lacks narrative arc, the prose propels Miller’s story forward, keeping the reader engaged. (Writer Pico Iyer has described Miller’s style as “dangerously close…to dude-speak.” He’s got a point.) Written during Cuba’s “Special Period,” it is especially interesting as a snapshot of that era.
NEW YORK CITY
Ambush at Fort Bragg by Tom Wolfe (1996)
More reasons to avoid a career in television! Tom Wolfe shows us the slimy side of a big-time New York network television magazine in its attempt to trap three redneck soldiers into confessing a murder. As in most Wolfe books, the characters are vivid and multi-dimensional. In one scene it’s hard to decide who’s more repulsive — the soldiers or the TV director — then in another, we experience empathy for both sides. Considered a novella, Ambush at Fort Bragg was first published as a two-part series in Rolling Stone.
Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe (1987)
Meet Sherman McCoy, millionaire Wall Street Bond salesman and a self-described “Master of the Universe.” He’s cloistered in a rarefied world of lavish parties, weekend seaside vacations, and the daily grind of making money money money. Oh, and McCoy has a young, foxy mistress too. Sounds like the guy we all love to hate, but it’s not that simple. Nothing is, in Wolfe’s masterful Bonfire of the Vanities, a panoramic satire illustrating New York City of the late ‘80s where the worlds of money makers, criminals, preachers, press people and the justice system collide. (All spurred by McCoy’s accidental hit and run in the Bronx. In his eyes, “the jungle.”) Who has the moral upper hand? No one, really. Even the young prosecutor out to defend the Bronx. Certainly not the Brit who spins the story of McCoy’s criminal case with creative flair. And it couldn’t possibly be the black reverend who runs community youth programs. The novel’s title derives from Renaissance-era Florence, when financiers and preachers dominated city life. Much like ‘80s New York City. In 1497, friar Girolamo Savonarola commanded Florentines burn their immoral distractions (jewelry, playing cards, etc.) in a “bonfire of the vanities.”
Marjorie Morningstar by Herman Wouk (1955)
One sentence plot summary of what the New York Times called a “king-sized novel”? “Marjorie gets married.” It’s more complicated than that, of course. Marjorie Morgenstern is a young woman pining for a brilliant acting career, and the “man of her dreams.” She’s so starry-eyed that she wants to be called “Morningstar” instead of “Morgenstern.” Before making it to the altar, Marjorie revels in (and suffers because of) a relationship with a gifted songwriter. Then she realizes her aspirations are different – and less lofty – than she had anticipated. The interesting spin to this novel is the setting — a middle-class Jewish home in New York City during the mid-‘30s. Marjorie is exactly my age for most of the novel, and I couldn’t help wondering what my life would have been like had I been born several decades ago. Apparently, other women feel the same way.