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 . . .
Q1: What is your favourite book set in Europe? Who is your favourite European author? #bookbloggers— Becky Bedbug (@BeckyBedbug) 5. Mai 2015
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!)
Q2: What is your favourite book set in N. America? Who is your favourite N. American author? #bookbloggers— Becky Bedbug (@BeckyBedbug) 5. Mai 2015
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?)
Q3: What is your favourite book set in South America? Who is your favourite South American author? #bookbloggers— Becky Bedbug (@BeckyBedbug) 5. Mai 2015
(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
Q4: What is your favourite book set in Asia? Who is your favourite Asian author? #bookbloggers— Becky Bedbug (@BeckyBedbug) 5. Mai 2015
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?)
Q5: What is your favourite book set in Australasia? Who is your favourite antipodean author? #bookbloggers— Becky Bedbug (@BeckyBedbug) 5. Mai 2015
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.
Q6: Have you ever read, or do you know of, any books written by authors in Antarctica/ the Arctic? #bookbloggers— Becky Bedbug (@BeckyBedbug) 5. Mai 2015
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!
Final Q #bookbloggers! Who are your favourite African authors & books set in Africa?— Becky Bedbug (@BeckyBedbug) 5. Mai 2015
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!