Before going to a new country, I like to get excited for the trip by reading novels, poems, or short stories from that country.
Trying to pick a reading list for this trip has been daunting! Mostly because we are visiting so many countries, and we don’t have an exact route planned yet. Also, finding works by Mongolian or Kazakh authors that have been translated into English has been more of a challenge than I anticipated. I figure once we are on the road, I’ll pick things up along the way. I’ll keep a running list here!
Turkestan Solo, Ella Maillart
Women have always been traveling the world by every means available. In 1932, long before traveling in Central Asia became fashionable, Ella Maillart traveled to Russian Turkestan, modern day Central Asia, including Russia, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgystan. She climbed the 5,000 meter-high Sari Tor on makeshift skis, explored the legendary cities of Tashkent, Samarkand, Khiva and Bukhara, and crossed, solo, the freezing and hostile wastes of the Kizil Kum, the Desert of Red Sands. I wish I was half as cool.
After having read it once, I keep this book on my night stand and flip through it whenever I can’t sleep. Open any page and find an adventure. Her commentary is also hilarious and sometimes shocking. Recounting a night sleeping in a flea infested sleeping back, she compares herself to fleas, that despite all of her parent’s best intentions and schooling, she is a flea at heart. When staying a small village, her traveling companion warns her to not go off wandering on her own, as the men in the village may interpret her lack of being married as an invitation for sex. She shrugs off the threat, noting that she brought her Syphilis medication.
I can’t say enough about this book. It’s an inspiration. It gives insight into the people she encounters, including photos. Maillart has a unique perspective on traveling and femininity. Despite our differences, sometimes a sentence would jump out at me, striking straight to my heart. This resulted in many dog eared pages. I cherish this book.
Louis on the Loose, Louis Pryce
Louis is another inspirational female pioneer. She has traveled around the world on her motorcycle. This book recounts her first long trip, after she quit her job at BBC to ride 20,000 miles from Alaska to Argentina. It’s quick tempo-ed, gives great detail on the logistics of such a trip, and flat out funny.
The Blue Sky, Galsan Tschinag. Amazon
The Blue Sky is a unique and intimate look at early twentieth century Mongolian life. It is the first of a series of three novels written by Tschinag. Born in 1940 in Bayan-Ölgii Province, Mongolia he spent his childhood as a shepherd boy. His family's way of living collided with the influence of modernization. The Blue Sky focuses on this early childhood, with the next two books in the series account for his adolescence in school and his adulthood in Germany.
The Blue Sky stuck with me. The prose is simple and quickly moves forward the plot. He includes great details—like peeing in his adopted grandmother’s eye to help reduce her loss of vision, or feeding his dog his childhood teeth that he loses in order for the adult teeth to grow in. Tschinag is the youngest of three children and full of wonder of the world that is contagious.
This is not a story of idyllic upbringing in the steppe. His family was separated by new Soviet mandates that all children attend school. When his older siblings return from school, they bring exotic and cherished handkerchiefs and candy. Tschinag’s family is under pressure from the Soviets to meet their quotas. A harsh winter weather put them in jeopardy and forcing the family to resort to different methods of hunting, including new and dangerous poison.
The Blue Sky is a wonderful novel. It was full of joy and pain, it taught things, and made me really grateful the second book is also translated into English.
The Grey Earth, Galsan Tschinag. Amazon
After being enthralled with Tsching in The Blue Sky, I couldn't wait to get my hands on The Grey Earth. At the end of The Blue Sky, Tsching hints that what was by all accounts a difficult young childhood turned into an even more difficult adolescence. I couldn't imagine how the deep struggles for survival that Tsching faced as a young boy could possibly get harder, but when he is forced to attend school he is put even more squarely in the conflict between his ancestral past and forced indoctrination by the socialist regime.
At school, Tsching is reunited with his older siblings and an older half-brother. He quickly picks up the alphabet and excels in school. Despite his good marks, the pain of change is immense. Some changes are little—wearing socks, which he describes as sacks for feet, and thinking of time in terms of days, months, and years. Others are fundamental shifts—cutting down sacred trees to meet Soviet quotas, and forsaking any mystic ceremonies. A disaster at the school causes deep and painful conflict that fundamentally changes Tsching’s course in life. His recounting of the tragedy and incredible fortitude through the entire ordeal is inspiring.
The book surprised me by being endearing and tragic. It provided incredible insight into the sweeping change that Mongolia experienced at this time. I’m sad that the third book is not available in English yet. I hope continued interest in Mongolia, and increased tourism from English speaking countries, will encourage the publisher to translate the third book.
Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, Jack Weatherford. Amazon.
Search for books on Mongolia, and this will likely be your first hit. Jack Weatherford is a historian who has spent time retracing the steps of Genghis Khan. He does a great job of retelling the early childhood of Genghis, which included everything from living alone with his siblings and mother in the mountains, to being kidnapped and kept slave.
Weatherford accounts the rapid expansion of Genghis empire with surprising empathy. It goes without saying that Genghis was a ruthless warrior—he killed, raped, and pillaged. Weatherford doesn’t excuse this. He does attempt to put it in context. In a world where many people were
The Secret History of the Mongol Queens: How the Daughters of Genghis Khan Rescued His Empire, Jack Weatherford. Amazon.
Weatherford’s second book on Mongolia focuses on Genghis Khan’s daughters. It can be a bit repetitive of Making of the Modern World in the beginning, but then it moves on to recount the harrowing lives of Genghis’ daughters and their incredible power politically and in warfare.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Alexander Solzhentsyn. Amazon.
One Day has left me thinking about it long after I put it down. It follows inmate Ivan in a Soviet labor camp around for a day during his ten year sentence in a forced labor camp. The structure of the book--recounting one day--makes the reader focus on the mundane survival in the work camp. It's brutally cold, not enough food, and no freedoms. The highlight of the day is when the team gets to work together to build a brick wall. They take great pride in their work, and they build a connection to each other through it. Ivan has conflicting emotions he feels about his imprisonment, and sprinkles in simple but deep advice such as “When you're cold, don't expect sympathy from someone who's warm.”
The book made me think of the incredible fortitude of humans. Even when literally caged up, we build social structures and find meaning. This is both an oddly comforting and sad thought at the same time. It also left me wondering: is forced labor better or worse than solitary confinement? Being confined with little to no productivity feels like an extra punishment after reading the pride of Ivan in his brick laying. It makes me think of the additional brutality of solitary confinement. Which is odd, because that line of thinking makes me almost prefer Soviet labor camps to modern American prisons that favor solitary confinement--which it must be the wrong conclusion. But in all honesty, I don't know. In sum, One Day made me question the very nature of human beings, punishment, and modern day punishment. It is wide reaching and a gem of a book.
City Folk and Country Folk, Sofia Khvoshchinskaya
Sofia lived in the Moscow suburbs and wrote under a male name (1824-1865) along with her two sisters. The translator makes the case that the Khvoshchinskaya sisters are like Russian Bronte sisters, pseudonyms, hardships, and writing about issues from female perspective before it was cool. Not my usual genre, but I enjoyed it, it's a romance story where the woman tells everyone to fuck off in the end. I appreciated the book more after travelling through Russia. As I rode through the Russian country side, I gained context for the novel. The same discussions the characters were having a hundred years ago -- country v. city and academia v. practicality -- are still going on today.
With Dance Shoes in Siberian Snows, Sanda Kalniete
Kalniete isn't Russian, she's Latvian, and served as the Foreign Prime minister from 2002-2004 and is currently a member of the European Parliament. But before that, her family was subject to incredible cruelty in exile in Siberia. In this book she pieces together stories from her mother, father, and surviving grandmother to tell how she ended up being born in Siberia to two Latvians. The family was finally able to return to Latvia in 1959. The story is incredible, and made me really feel for the victims of Soviet exile. It is a translation though, and could have used more editing.
The Woman Who Borrowed Memories, Tove Jansson
Jansson is a Swede who grew up in Finland, and this collection of short stories encapsulated many of my experiences traveling across Scandinavia. There were little things that I recognized in her stories, like how she describes the slippery moss on the granite near the water, or the strange lasting sunlight in the summer months. And there were more intangible things that I recognized, like how being in remote northern Scandinavia can make one feel calm and alone at the same time. Her stories touch on universal themes of loneliness, memory, and friendship. They feel familiar and yet have a creepy quality to them. I couldn't predict where the plot was going but I knew the characters. Sometimes I felt lost and a little frustrated in a story, but then I wanted to go back and read it again as soon as it was over. I appreciated Jansson's writing style, it's concise and detailed. Anytime I'm missing Scandinavia, I'll be sure to reread this.
In picking a book for France, I was tempted to go with something outside of romance—maybe something political or post-modern. But that wouldn’t be France. So I went full into the romance category with this book, written by Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, first published in 1920. The book focuses on Cheri whose romance is cursed because Lea is 24 years older than her lover. They appear to be upper middle-class, both related to the courtesan world. This is a world I don’t understand at all. I can’t wrap my head around how one would be able to support a lavish lifestyle, with regular income or work, solely on hanging out in clubs and having sex with each other. I guess that’s just a world I’ll never inhabit. The characters could quickly be annoying, tied up in mundane things. But there were times when their worlds felt bigger, cutting to something deeper. Colette deals aging and lust lightly but piercingly. On a whole, the book sometimes playful, and a quick read. Which made it a pleasing, indulgent read during our week stay in France.
Kirsty Logan, The Rental Heart and other fairytales.
We started our week in Scotland dodging Storm Ali, then hit some road construction with two hour delays, then traversed the absolutely beautiful Bealech na Ba pass to camp in Applecross. We took our time rounding to Edinburgh, stopping at quirky spots along the way. The Rental Heart was the perfect companion to this road trip. First, it mocked the "beware of sheep" signs that cracked me up all over Northern Scotland. Just like the Scottish landscape, the stories were also varied, some set it in the contemporary world, some in a fantasy future, and some in a fictional past of fairies and princesses. At first I was skeptical of the collection. The stories felt alternatively heavy handed in their moral, or so obscure I wasn't sure of the plot. But after awhile, a theme emerged across them all, and I sunk into Logan's crisp and we'll edited writing. I also appreciated the varied points of view from which the stories were told. There were men, women, young, old, and everything in between. In a heavily feminist and queer novel, I appreciate the author tackling something other than the female voice. By the end, I really enjoyed this whole collection and the refreshing points of view it brought.