blaise's book feast

Un amuse bouche de la litterature

Tag: travel

A Burmese Interlude

April found me in Burma, which I have overly romanticized with the consumption of novels of the British Raj and French Indochina since I was young. Obviously, the country no longer resembles the days glorified by Rudyard Kipling, but has been thrust into an oppressive nightmare for the past 60 years, from which it is just timidly beginning to emerge. I have had two previous attempts to visit the country via Thailand, but was prevented by deteriorating political situations. Last month I traveled to Eastern Burma and provide basic healthcare to the marginalized and stateless Hill Tribe villages. There is a pervasive optimism within the Burmese people that their country is entering a time of liberation, freedom of press and openness. I met many young Burmese who were exceptionally well educated and well read despite coming from such a repressed background, and I was continually impressed with their knowledge of the outside world, which, until recently was obtained only through clandestine sources. Here are a few books that provide a window into Burma:

Burmese Days by George Orwell

One of the most famous Western writers to have written about Burma, Orwell’s experiences in the country as an officer in the British Imperial Police force at a young age seemed to have shaped his literary career.  Many critics believe that 1984 and Animal Farm are based on his experiences in Burma and disenchantment with the British Raj. The novel is a loosely veiled vignette of himself, disguised as a chap named Flory, who is in charge of a small outpost in rural Burma.  He details the ennui of many of the expatriates British of the time; the lack of home comforts, the absence of ice for their ubiquitous gin and tonics, and the oppressive jungle heat.  Flory is accompanied by a Burmese mistress, whom he dismisses after falling in love with young Elizabeth who arrives from Paris.  Fickle though she is, she returns Flory’s attentions at times, and then devastatingly for Flory, falls in love with a dashing though ruthless polo player. The love story continues until an unsettling end, but perhaps the more engaging themes are those of the Burmese laboring under the demands of the British, with glimpses of their hopes and dreams.

Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin

Emma Larkin is an American expatriate who has resided in Thailand for many years, and has traveled extensively throughout Burma, even when the military junta made it next to impossible for foreigners to move about the country. Ms. Larkin published this book in 2006, when the regime still had a stranglehold on the press, foreign correspondents were not allowed into the country, and any statement that could be remotely interpreted as traitorous resulted in an indefinite prison term. She was able to travel extensively throughout the country using her limited Burmese, to try to understand the correlations between Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm and daily life in Burma. When she asked a Burmese man if he knew the work of Orwell, he replied, “Ah, you mean the prophet!” Ms. Larkin traveled from Rangoon to Mandalay, and to Maymyo, the Hill Station used by the British military as a respite from the summer heat. She found a remarkable network of underground libraries and learning, and a thirst for education that couldn’t- and hasn’t- been squelched by the regime.

No Bad News For the King by Emma Larkin

(Also published in the US as Everything is Broken)

This remarkable book details the devastation of Cyclone Nargis in 2008, which killed over 100,000 Burmese and was little known by the international community. The crux of the book is the horrifying response of the Burmese government to the disaster.  The regime provided no help to the victims of the cyclone and refused to allow the international aid community to enter the country.  The US, French and British Navies had ships just off shore from the hardest hit areas to provide humanitarian relief, but were continually denied access into the country.  The few relief cargo jets that made it onto the airstrip in Rangoon were forced to take off again prior to unloading precious supplies. It wasn’t until weeks after the disaster that aid workers were allowed in, but very few supplies trickled down to the most affected areas.

The remarkable part of this book is that in a culture where government censorship of the media paints only rosy pictures  of daily life in Burma and that journalists are routinely thrown in jail for interminable lengths of time, Ms. Larkin was able to conduct clandestine research through a network of protective Burmese friends and travel to the hardest hit areas of the storm where no relief workers had come. She found that it was the Burmese themselves who took on huge risks to drive supplies from Rangoon to the Delta to help their countrymen, while the massive army stood wearily by. Her narrative again demonstrates the amazing resilience and willpower of the Burmese people.

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Magazines

With the profusion of boutique magazines lately, there is a lot of content to comb through.  My favorites remain a couple of the originals, Lucky Peach and Kinfolk.  Both have summer issues out right now, which are perfect to read on the back porch in the late summer sunsets.  This issue of Lucky Peach is a pirate’s chest of ocean themed food.  There is a touching essay by Anthony Bourdain, who makes regular appearances in the magazine, along with editor David Chang.  The Kinfolk summer issue is similarly dedicated to the sea, seaside gatherings and great food.  So sit down in the fading rays, imagine your toes in the foaming ocean, and get inspired to make yourself a lobster roll.


lucky

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The Signature of All Things

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

I had the fortune of receiving an autographed hard bound copy of this book for Christmas (thank you Barbette!).  I first became acquainted with Miss Gilbert’s writing in her bestseller, Eat, Pray, Love.  Say what you will about that book- the fact that it encouraged unprecedented numbers of women to travel is amazing.

Prior to reading The Signature of All Things, I wasn’t aware of Ms. Gilbert’s literary background.  I assumed that she made millions on a book that incited a collective wanderlust.  What I didn’t expect to find in this book is that Ms. Gilbert is a highly talented author who is able to weave a complex narrative over several decades and continents, which would always leave me wanting to read more.  And I would have, but it’s a 499 page book, and early shifts at the hospital invariably got in the way.

The book starts out with young Henry Whittaker, an intelligent teenage thief who understands that he can make a fortune by selling rare plants from the Kew Gardens where he is employed, to rare plant collectors around Europe.  When the scallywag is found out, Henry is already bound for Philadelphia, where he builds a vast estate, complete with gardens and steam powered greenhouses.  He has a daughter, Alma, who becomes the crux of the book.  Alma goes about her formative years as a pith helmeted, safari-jacket-wearing tot, ever weary of the indoors and always curious about the natural world.

Alma and her sister are educated in the farthest reaches of Latin, French, chemistry and biology by their formidable mother.  Alma is an adept scientist, though the landmark theories she designs are received with substandard regard from the scientific community, as she is after all, a female. Alma persists with her studies, particularly those regarding mosses; and eventually her theories intersect with those of Darwin.

There are several thick subplots of love, treachery, loyalty and honor from the most unexpected protagonists, which keep the story propelled forward.  Add dashes of perilous sea travel, the discovery of foreign religions, an unusual marriage, and a secret between sisters to keep the pages turning.

-P.S.-

I have been a pilgrim to Miss Gilbert’s import store, Two Buttons, in Frenchtown, NJ, every time that I’m in the area.  The store is an organized jumble of treats from around the globe, including gorgeous hand carved toucans from Brazil, singing bowls from Nepal, and my all time favorites- bookshelves made from old Indonesian boat hulls. Oftentimes, Liz is there, accompanied by her husband Philippe, who makes popcorn for patrons in an antique popcorn machine, and wanders around offering wine, describing the varietals in his Brazilian lilt.  Go visit if you can!