13 May 2015


Life as a Reading Challenge, Chapter 17

Every Tuesday at 7:00 p.m. UK time (which in the Philippines is Wednesday at 2:00 a.m. after you've sprung forward and 3:00 a.m. after you've fallen back), you can join a Twitter chat for book bloggers. Oh, I mean, #bookbloggers. =P This week's host was @BeckyBedbug, who picked the fantastic topic "literature from all the continents."

As you might expect, there were seven questions . . . 

How is that for an ambitious question? A huge number of books in the Western canon and in the English-speaking world come from Europe or are set in Europe! Does anyone really have just one favourite European book or one favourite European author? But while I scrambled to answer the question before the Twitter chat window of relevance slammed shut, others didn't even have to think about it. The first answer in the thread was: Harry Potter.

And I thought (not unkindly): "Huh?"

I mean, yes, the Harry Potter series is set in an European country and was written by a European author . . . but "European" is probably the last adjective anyone would use to describe either of them! There's a sense in which England is less European than France--because the English seem less committed to the idea of Europe as a united political and cultural entity than the French do. I personally wouldn't pick an English book to represent Europe, though the challenge to say something before the Twitter chat window of relevance slammed closed got me mentioning A Room with a View by E.M. Forster (our very first "Two or Three" Book Club pick!), because the English characters are changed forever by a trip to Italy.

Only after tweeting that did I remember a recent read that should have been my first answer: The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy. We certainly get a sense of "Europe" (however anachronistic) from a displaced Hungarian aristocrat writing a book about an English hero who saves lives during the French Revolution! And I felt sorry that I hadn't yet read Bram Stoker's Dracula: an Irish author, English and Eastern European settings, a Dutch hero, and a Transylvanian title character are virtually a royal flush! (Curiously, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, which beat Dracula to be a "Two or Three" Book Club pick, and has an English author, an Italian protagonist-villain, and Swiss and German settings, didn't come to mind at all. Burn!)

I totally saw the second question coming, but it was still as tough to answer as the first. More than half my personal library is made up of books from North America!!!

For all I hear on occasion about "the great American novel," I don't think I've read any of the major titles in the running. Being very subjective now, the most American authors I've read are Louisa May Alcott, Ray Bradbury, Willa Cather, J.D. Salinger, Mark Twain, Jean Webster, and Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Now, what I like about Twitter chats is that they force you to think fast and to write even faster. (Random relevant association: that's also what Ray Bradbury liked about pay typewriters.) Answers born out of desperation are often different from answers that were allowed to ripen properly--and they're fun to compare! The above list of American answers is a ripened answer, but during the chat itself, I named only Webster, even as I knew she offered up only a narrow slice of the North American experience.

(Oh, hi, Canadians! I didn't see you guys over there. Did you have something to add?)

(And hello to you, too, Mexicans! Which American continent are you part of, really?)

Right off the top of my head, I can name several South American writers: Isabel Allende, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Pablo Neruda, Mario Vargas Llosa . . . But though I think they're worth exploring, I haven't actually read anything by them. So I just admitted to the rest of the #bookbloggers that my reading life is a big fat fail when it comes to South America, and got ready for the next question.

Between then and now, I remembered that I have read a South American novel: By the River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept by Paulo Coelho. But why do I feel that this makes my reading "cred" drop even further? ;-P

What is my favourite book set in Asia? Who is my favourite Asian author? Oh, stand back, little children, and let me have the soapbox! =D

Of course I named Nick Joaquin (for magical realism) and F. Sionil Jose (for social realism) immediately. If I hadn't been so busy replying to other tweets about other topics, I would have also mentioned Budjette Tan and Kajo Baldisimo (for urban fantasy). And since diaspora is such a huge part of Philippine identity, because everyone has either resettled out of the country or lost someone who has, UK author Candy Gourlay (for Middle Grade fiction) should have received an honourable mention. I did shamelessly plug my June Giveaway, which features all these writers . . . but I don't think anyone noticed. LOL!

Sometimes I think that the Philippines is about as Asian as England is European, though for opposite reasons. If it weren't for our ethnic Chinese community (rapidly becoming the ruling class now that the Spanish mestizos are dwindling in number and influence) and our "Moros" in the south, we'd still be as obviously Latin as our South American cousins. There's a sense in which Haruki Murakami of Japan (the only other Asian author I recall reading) is a better representative of Asian literature than any Filipino writer.

But Asia is not like Europe. There's no "Asian idea" that unites all Asian countries . . . though there have been a few moves of late by ASEAN members to form a stronger alliance in the face of growing Chinese power. And you probably won't find an Asian novel that does what I've just described A Room with a View, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Dracula, and Frankenstein doing. (Then again, I haven't read Jose's Viajero yet. Let's talk again in June, okay?)

I felt so good about being an authority on "Asian" literature that I didn't feel too bad about admitting that I lived in New Zealand for two years and yet could not answer this question. ROFL! In all honesty, though, I've come to realise that I squandered my time there. I should have immersed myself in more of the local literature. I mean, I was an English Literature major.

Nearly every English Lit paper I took included a Kiwi book, but the one which left the biggest impression on me is only partly Kiwi: Samuel Butler's Erewhon. It's a satire in the form of a Lost World adventure novel that was inspired by the English Butler's emigration to New Zealand. And it's both my hasty answer and my thoughtfully-considered answer.

Two novels set in Antarctica came to mind at once: Troubling a Star by Madeleine L'Engle and State of Fear by Michael Crichton (another "Two or Three" Book Club alumnus!). But beyond the authors of travelogues and scientific papers, can we call anyone an "Antarctican writer"? Is there an "Antarctican experience" that could inspire a world literature classic? I have no idea, but I'd love to live in a world where the answer to both questions is yes!

I felt lucky that I could say I've read Disgrace by Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee. And it's definitely an "African" novel, exploring racial tensions in South Africa and suggesting a way that South Africans can move on from their exploitative past and brutally violent present. I touched a bit on that in a Locus Focus post on the Isaacs Family's Dining Room and also wrote a Reading Diary entry.

But my favourite "African" novel is by a European writer. Is that offensive? =P I vaguely feel that it is, because the current narrative is that European colonisation of African countries is an evil, evil thing . . . but really, the book itself is blameless. I refer to H. Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines, which, curiously enough, also inspired a Locus focus post and a Reading Diary entry!

I've also read Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, because I didn't want to watch the movie Apocalypse Now until I did, and it's another novel that is very "African" to me. (Do I now apologise to the actual African Chinua Achebe, whom I haven't read? =P). It got a mention in my smackdown review of Francis Coppola's film.

* * * * *

Well, that's not the best reading report card in the world (though it may be a pun =P), but I kind of like it. While it was embarrassing to have come up nearly empty for some categories, it was fun to browse my mental bookcases to see what I could come up with. It was like the party game Bring Me. "Bring me a European/American/Asian/Australasian/Antarctican/African book!" Whether you're grabbing your undisputed favourite from an overflowing shelf, the first or only one that happens to be handy, or a book that you barely remembered reading, you'll be able to able to bring something.

But having played one round of #Bookbloggers Bring Me, I want to step up my game. (Yes, even my pun game!) I have an unwritten policy of switching up genres and "old" and "new" books as often as possible, so that I don't read too many of one type of book or author at a time, but I've never really thought of switching up cultures. Until now, I've been perfectly happy to stick with "Western" books and to let the majority of them have been originally written in English--be it British English or Americanese. And while that wasn't a bad decision, it was arguably a limiting one. And I'd rather not remain so limited going forward.

My TBR Challenge and the word CLEAR are still king and queen of this blog this year, and most of the books I've committed to reading will keep me squarely in the Western and English grooves. Though for what it's worth, the Canadian novel (Happy now, Canucks?) that I'm currently reading has already taken me from the Holy Land to the Vatican! But I do predict one major change: in the same way that reading a bunch of recent releases makes me crave a classic or finishing a YA series makes me want to try something more "R rated," too many "European" and "North American" books at once will send me scurrying off to other continents for something new. And then Reading Diary entries will also be Armchair Travel Diary entries!


Jenny said...

There's no way I could answer these questions without thinking for a good long while. Frankenstein is my favorite book of all time so I guess that cold be my favorite book for Europe. I Am the Messanger would be by Australia book. As for the rest...I wouldn't have been able to answer. So you did great!

Enbrethiliel said...


Oh, I wish you had been here for the Frankenstein readalong last year! Pretty much everyone eviscerated the book, so it would have been interesting to have your perspective as well. Why is it your favourite?

And I'm sure that if this were a party game and everyone had to answer immediately, you'd do great as well. =) We never know what we might blurt out under pressure!

Star Crunch said...

The Silver Chalice?

I do live in Mexico (though I'm not from here), and can only imagine that anyone I know would describe himself as North American, if posed with the question.

From South America I'm only aware of having read a little Borges, whose absence from your list seems conspicuous, especially given his appreciation of Chesterton. :)

Belfry Bat said...

Borges writes seriously weird. Blue Tigers, and that one about the library... those are the ones I know, but they're weird enough.

As it happens, I've read no Neruda, but I do know the name.

En, You've done Atwood in this 'blog so don't worry: your Canadiaphile cred is solid. We also like to pretend that we're self-effacing, so the omission fits in well with our ironic self-image!

Enbrethiliel said...


Star Crunch -- Borges totally slipped my mind until I read your comment just now! And yet I have read an essay by him. "The one about the library," as Bat described it.

Would you believe that a trainee and I once disputed which part of America Mexico is in? I was right about North America, but then again, she wasn't insisting on South America. Mexico, she said, is in Central America. I would have continued arguing the point if she hadn't been a client! LOL!

Bat -- Margaret Atwood did come to mind when I finally remembered that Canada existed, but she doesn't really seem Canadian to me. Which is funny to say because I couldn't begin to tell you what does "seem Canadian." Apart from stuff like Degrassi High, Are You Afraid of the Dark, and Due South, although during the time I watched them, I thought they were USA-ian. =P Having brought up the issue, is there an author whom you would recommend to someone who wanted something really Canadian to read?

Belfry Bat said...

There's also Jack London. And Robertson Davies. And Mordecai Richler? Oh! Stephen Leacock! Definitely. And those are just among the Anglophone ones.

Robertson Davies had opinions about a particular kind of "Canadian" "writing", on which we will say no more here.
But I haven't read any of Davies' novels.
Anyways, those are the first that come to mind.

Sheila said...

Mexico *is* in Central America. It's not a continent though, it's the southern region of North America, so far as I know. So you were both right.

Canadians are just like Americans, only politer .... it can be hard to tell them apart. Some of Michael O'Brien's books are pretty Canadian; not the one you're reading though. I wish I could remember the name of the one about the Indian girl who painted icons; I really liked it.

I would fail at this challenge because I can't think of a single book I've read by an Asian author! Was The Good Earth by an Asian?

For Europe, I'd choose All Quiet on the Western Front, the book that turned me into a pacifist. North America, Huck Finn; I don't think there is a single book more American than that. South America, Allende's House of Spirits. Africa, oh, probably Cry, The Beloved Country, everybody is going to say that, because it's so good. But I'm almost tempted to nominate The Number One Ladies' Detective Agency books, even though I am not sure the author was born in Africa. And for Australia/Oceania, the only one I can think of was a romance called Addition, which was very good.

No Antarctica books, sorry. ;)

This post inspires me to read more books from faraway places ... I haven't traveled much, but a book is the next best thing.

Enbrethiliel said...


Bat -- Thanks! If you had a book blog, you could do something Canada-themed like the Philippine-themed extravaganza I'm planning for next month. ;-)

Sheila -- Pearl S. Buck wasn't Chinese, but she spent many years in China! And the chat counted Asian-set books, so The Good Earth would still have counted as an answer. =) I read another of Buck's novels, The Rainbow, in high school, but remember nothing about it now!

I wish I had got into the Number One Ladies' Detective Agency series when the books first started coming out. They seem much more fun than the Sunday Philosophy Club series, which I did try to read. Don't ask me anything about them, though! =P And I just looked up Alexander McCall Smith's background, and he totally counts as an African author: he was born and grew up in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, and after he became a lawyer, he worked in Botswana.

Anyway, I've finished Father Elijah. You're right that it's hardly Canadian. LOL! I may have to take some of Bat's suggestions soon!

Banshee said...

Robertson Davies was very weird, but fun when he let himself be. He had a whole book of Christmas ghost stories, IIRC. He did a whole bunch of trilogies of literary novels. He also did a very bizarre novel about the making of a King Arthur opera, called The Lyre of Orpheus, which is also somewhat fannish friendly (because of all the stuff with Arthurian themes, possibly). OTOH, some of his novels were more boring than you would have thought they'd be. (A novel about art forgery should be a little more exciting and have a lot fewer tedious flashbacks, IMHO.) But I haven't read all of his books, so I'm not sure what is best. Pretty much all his novels include sex and/or violence somewhere. Lots of stuff happens; they're not plotless.

Melanie Bettinelli said...

Harry Potter makes me say "huh?" too. Europe is tough. Especially if you discount England. Stoker is a brilliant choice. I might go with Rumer Godden's In This House of Brede, which is set in England. If we're going continental, I might go for her Five for Sorrow Ten for Joy, which is set in France. Or oh since I've been blogging my Dorothy Dunnett read along, she'd be a brilliant choice. I can't believe I didn't think of her first. The Lymond books begin in Scotland with lots of border crossings into England, and then move to France then Malta and other islands in the Mediterranean, then later Russia and then back to France and Scotland, a great tour of Europe, with some North Africa and the Levant thrown in for good measure.

Guy Gavriel Kay is Canadian too, and one of my all-time favs. Have you read any of his novels yet? I might count one of his most recent as my favorite novel set in Asia, though, if we can count fantasy novels set in alt-reality Asia. That would be Under Heaven.

For North American fiction I might go with Huck Finn. Or Atwood's Handmaid's Tale for a novel set in Massachusetts by a Canadian author. Though when I think of her books that feel most "Canadian" to me, it would have to be Cat's Eye. Or Michael O'Brien's Plague Journal, that feels very "Canadian". I think right now I'd list Kay as my favorite N.A. author.

I did go on a Robertson Davies kick inspired by a post college roommate. But I am not all that found of his writing.

For South American, I'd have to go with Isabelle Allende's House of the Spirits. I haven't read much South American fiction, but I went on a huge Allende kick in college and read just about everything I could get my hands on.

For book by an Asian author, I think I'm going to go with Silence by Shusaku Endo. My mischievous side sort of wants to pick a Rumer Godden, one of hers set in India. Maybe Black Narcissus or Peacock Spring for the European expat in Asia thing.

Australia is tough. I haven't read nearly enough, and what I have read was mostly YA. Seven Little Australians was good, I'd probably pick that. And Rabbit Proof Fence is another I've read years ago. I need to ask Jocelyn to suggest some Kiwi novels. Oh I guess I have read Mr Pip.

Troubling a Star is the only Antarctic novel I can think of, but I've got a niggling feeling there's something I'm forgetting.

Africa.... I tried to read Things Fall Apart, but never finished. Cry the Beloved Country I read in school but I don't have fond memories of, really. Maybe Doris Lessing's The Grass Is Singing? I've read the first couple No 1 Ladies Detective Agency books, they were good light reading.

And this has been very fun. I love book listy posts. I should really take this comment and make it into a blog post and see if I can get more people to play along with the 7 continents book theme.

Enbrethiliel said...


Thanks for joining in, Melanie! It's always fun to know what others will bring to the reading table. =)

I've never read Dorothy Dunnett, but by bringing the historical element, her series may be a better answer for Europe than Bram Stoker's Dracula! Neither have I read Guy Gavriel Kay . . . but now I'm toying with the idea of having a Canadian writer represent North America, rather than one of the more "obvious" choices from down south. =P

My mischievous side and yours should have tea together someday. I'd definitely add A Passage to India by E.M. Forster to the Asian novels list. ;-)

I'll be haunting your blog for your post. I'm sure your well-read commenters will have lots more to add!