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BOOKLUST, WANDERLUST: In honor of Mother’s Day, three books by and about strong international women

booklust-wanderlust-2015

Attention displaced bookworms! For this month’s column, Beth Green has some eclectic picks for displaced reads—all of which feature women who transcend national boundaries.

Hello again, Displaced Nationers!

Mother’s Day is coming up in the United States on May 8 (the UK celebrated its mums in March). As an American who lives abroad, I am marking the occasion by reading the beautiful, intriguing A Mother’s Secret, by Renita D’Silva, which came out in early April.

renita and a mother's secret

Now living in the UK, D’Silva grew up in a coastal village in South India. Reflecting that background, D’Silva’s debut novel, Monsoon Memories, was about an Indian woman who has been exiled from her family for more than a decade and is living in London (it was a Displaced Nation pick for 2014).

Her latest work, A Mother’s Secret, which came out in early April, tells the story of Jaya, the British-born daughter of immigrants. Jaya struggles with the unexpected death of her mother, Durga, followed by the loss of her baby son in a tragic cot death. Looking through her mother’s belongings, Jaya finds diaries that unlock the secrets of her mother’s unhappy past, before she emigrated to England. Part of the story is told by Durga, through diary excerpts, and part by Kali, a mad old lady who, like Durga, was doing her best to survive and succeed in traditional Indian culture.

I haven’t finished A Mother’s Secret yet—and hadn’t even planned on reviewing it—but I’m still willing to recommend it on the strength of D’Silva’s mesmerizing descriptions of India, along with the finely woven mystery connecting Jaya to her mother and to Kali. In D’Silva’s hands, the the India of several decades ago becomes a place of lush, gothic beauty. Take, for instance, her description of a ruined mansion feared by the villagers and rumored to be haunted:

“Oh there’s a curse all right,” the rickshaw driver huffs. “No boy child survives in that family. Everyone associated with that mansion is cursed with unhappiness, insanity, death. You must be out of your mind to go there, and I have warned you plenty. But it’s none of my business, as long as you pay me three times the fare like you promised.” The rickshaw driver’s hair drips with sweat as his ramshackle vehicle brings them closer and closer to the ruin, which looms over the earth-tinged emerald fields, painting the mud below the dark black of clotted blood.

While on the theme of women’s lives, allow me to segue into another book I finished recently, My Life on the Road, by American feminist activist Gloria Steinem. (It was on the Displaced Nation’s Best of 2015 list, and also a pick by fellow Displaced Nation columnist HE Rybol for a 2016 read.)

Gloria Steinem portrait and book

As one doesn’t automatically associate with Steinem with travel, I was surprised to learn how much time she has actually spent “on the road.” Her childhood, I was fascinated to discover, consisted of a series of road trips across the United States with her nomadic parents, who made a living selling antiques. She credits these childhood travels with shaping her later talents as a journalist and organizer. And although she no longer leads a peripatetic life—she bought property and established a home base—she estimates she spends more nights out of her house than in it.

Steinem writes:

Taking to the road—by which I mean letting the road take you—changed who I thought I was. The road is messy in the way that real life is messy. It leads us out of denial and into reality, out of theory and into practice, out of caution and into action, out of statistics and into stories— in short, out of our heads and into our hearts. It’s right up there with life-threatening emergencies and truly mutual sex as a way of being fully alive in the present.

Notably, one of Steinem’s formative experiences came after her graduation from Smith College, when she won a fellowship to study in India for two years. Living in India broadened her horizons and made her aware of the extent of human suffering in the world. India was also where she learned about the “talking circle”—an intimate form of storytelling “in which anyone may speak in turn, everyone must listen, and consensus is more important than time.”

The book isn’t a chronological history of this 82-year-old iconic figure’s travels in America and abroad, but rather a (sometimes disjointed) collection of thoughts about why she enjoys constant movement, and a series of vignettes about the people—and personalities—she’s met along the way.

One of the biggest personalities is her father—a larger-than-life figure from whom Steinem has inherited a love of the nomadic life:

I can’t imagine my father living any other life. When I see him in my mind’s eye, he is always the traveler, eating in a diner instead of a dining room, taking his clothes out of a suitcase instead of a closet, looking for motel VACANCY signs instead of a home, making puns instead of plans, choosing spontaneity over certainty.

When I first picked up the book, I was a little apprehensive that it would be all about Steinem’s political views. (Given that this is an election year in the United States, I’m getting my quota of political reading from the daily news!)

Naturally, Steinem does write about politics—after 40 years devoted to leading a revolution for women’s equality, how could she not? For example, Steinem was at Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and she drops the usual names you’d expect from that era.

But the majority of her stories are what the title suggests—tales about ordinary people she has encountered on the road, such as taxi drivers or people she met at roadside diners or in airports while on her way to conferences or political events. An example:

Our older driver is like a rough trade character from a Tennessee Williams play— complete with an undershirt revealing tattoos, and an old Marine Corps photo stuck in the frame of his hack license. Clearly, this is his taxi and his world.

The friendships she forges with people across the country, particularly with Native American activists, enliven the book and underscore Steinem’s interest in getting to know local communities—though I sometimes got the bittersweet feeling that, given her restlessness, she will never be more than observer of these grassroots circles. In one such passage, Steinem details a trip she once took to a Native American site in Ohio with the author Alice Walker and Walker’s assistant, Deborah Matthews:

That night we join Deborah’s mother, her eighty-six-year-old grandmother, and teachers and neighbors at a community potluck supper in the school gym. It’s a welcome for us. With the slow-paced humor and warmth I’ve come to cherish, they talk about the history of small-town Ohio, and are delighted that we are interested. Deborah’s grandmother has lived her entire life near Adena mounds that may be even older than the one we just saw. They reminisce about everything from romantic outings in the Great Circle Earthworks to the connection they feel to people they just call “the ancients.”

In short, I’d recommend My Life on the Road not only to anyone interested in Steinem herself and the 1960s American feminist movement, but also to anyone with a passion for travel. (That said, if you’re fed up with hearing about American politics already this year, you might wait until after November to start reading!)

Before I sign off for this month, a book I’d like to mention to any readers thirsting for some armchair adventure is Displaced Nationer and current expat Jennifer S. Alderson’s Down and Out in Kathmandu, which came out at the end of last year and was in my to-be-read pile for 2016.

Jennifer Alderson and book cover

The first in a planned series of international thrillers, the book introduces us to protagonist Zelda Richardson, a burnt-out Seattle-based computer programmer who is heading to Nepal for a volunteer teaching gig.

Teaching English in Nepal is nothing like Zelda expects—relationships with her host families are fraught, facilities are limited and the students are less than impressed with Zelda herself. While struggling to deal with the strange culture and her unruly classroom, she crosses paths with Ian, an Australian backpacker who is on a teaching sabbatical and simply searching for the best weed he can find.

And then, of course, as often happens when you link up with backpackers, Zelda finds herself entangled with an international gang of smugglers who believe she and Ian have stolen their diamonds. They also cross paths with Tommy, a shady Canadian in Thailand…

Alderson’s next Zelda book, The Lover’s Portrait, is set in Amsterdam and is due out at the end of next month.

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Until next time, happy reading!

As always, please let me or ML know if you have any suggestions for books you’d like to see reviewed here! And I urge you to sign up for the DISPLACED DISPATCH, which has at least one Recommended Read every week.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

Beth Green is an American writer living in Prague, Czech Republic. She grew up on a sailboat and, though now a landlubber, continues to lead a peripatetic life, having lived in Asia as well as Europe. Her personal Web site is Beth Green Writes. She has also launched the site Everyday Travel Stories. To keep in touch with her in between columns, try following her on Facebook and Twitter. She’s a social media nut!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to subscribe to The Displaced Dispatch, a weekly round up of posts from The Displaced Nation and much, much more. Sign up for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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BOOKLUST, WANDERLUST: 6 writers talk expat- and travel-themed books: last year’s faves, this year’s must-reads

booklust-wanderlust-2015

Attention displaced bookworms! Our book review columnist, Beth Green, an American expat in Prague (she is also an Adult Third Culture Kid), has canvassed several international creatives for their favorite expat- and travel-themed books of 2015, along with what’s on their bedside tables in 2016.

Hello, Displaced Nationers!

Last month I wrote to you about my Goodreads Reading Challenge, which, at 34 books and counting, is still proving (ahem) something of a challenge.

For this month’s column, instead of focusing on my 300-book goal, I decided to find out what other international creatives, several of whom have been featured in this column and/or on the Displaced Nation, have been reading.

I asked each of them to answer these two questions:

  1. What were the best books you read last year on displaced/expat/travel themes?
  2. What books are you looking forward to this year in the same or similar genres?  

Their responses are nothing short of tantalizing!

So much so that I’m now wondering…can I squeeze any more in?!

Please take a look:

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MARK ADAMS, bestselling author

For the last several months I’ve been working on a new book about Alaska, so the 49th State has occupied a lot of my reading hours. Naturally, I’ve reread John McPhee’s classic Coming into the Country and Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild. But two slightly less well-known books with an Alaska connection have really stuck with me.

John Muir and the Ice That Started a Fire_coverThe first is John Muir and the Ice that Started a Fire: How a Visionary and the Glaciers of Alaska Changed America, by Kim Heacox (Lyons Press, 2014). This is a great example of history that comes alive by weaving names, dates and events with passion for a cause, in this case environmentalism. Today, Alaska’s shrinking glaciers are viewed mostly by passengers aboard cruise ships who look up while sampling their breakfast buffets. To Muir, though, they were living things, mysteries that held timeless wisdom. Heacox makes a stirring argument that Muir’s early trips to Alaska jump-started the modern conservation movement.

Deadliest_State_coverThe second book is Kalee Thompson’s The Deadliest Sea: The Untold Story Behind the Greatest Rescue in Coast Guard History (Harper-Collins, 2010). When I realized that my book research was going to take me deep into the Bering Sea, which I wasn’t even sure I could place on a map, I reached for a copy of this. I’m not sure it was the right choice for someone who’ll be sailing those frigid and famously turbulent waters soon, but any readers who like tales along the lines of The Perfect Storm or Black Hawk Down will find that Thompson’s tick-tock re-creation of this lifesaving mission really places them amid the freezing chaos of the action.

Sunnys_Nights_coverOne book I’ve already read and loved in 2016 takes place very far from Alaska. It’s Tim Sultan’s delightful Sunny’s Nights: Lost and Found at a Bar on the Edge of the World, a memoir that tells the story of a curious young man who lands in Brooklyn in the mid-1990s after a peripatetic and somewhat disorienting youth in Laos, the Ivory Coast and Germany. Sultan finds a home at what must be the strangest tavern north of New Orleans—Sunny’s opens only one night a week and its clientele runs from Mafiosi to nuns—and takes on the bar’s namesake owner as a sort of surrogate father. It’s a stained-glass window offering a nostalgic glimpse of a Brooklyn that has largely vanished.

The Seven Storey Mountain_coverNow, a book I’m looking forward to reading this year: The Seven Storey Mountain, by Thomas Merton (Harcourt Brace; Fiftieth Anniversary ed., 1998). When I attended Catholic school in the 1970s, there were probably copies of Thomas Merton’s huge bestseller in every classroom, which is a shame, because most grade schoolers would be more interested in reading the phone book. Now that I’m older and no longer required to recite the Lord’s Prayer along with the Pledge of Allegiance every morning, I have the life experience that pushes one to ponder big questions, such as the meaning of life. Merton made that leap much earlier; he was an urbane, Ivy League-educated writer who abandoned a budding career at age 23 to cloister himself in a Kentucky monastery. (As a writer, I’m almost as awed by his decision to donate all royalties to his monastic order.) This is the story of his circuitous path toward embracing a life of pure spirituality.

Mark Adams is the bestselling author of Meet Me in Atlantis: My Obsessive Quest to Find the Sunken City, which was reviewed for this column in May of last year.


JENNIFER ALDERSON, expat and author

Savage Harvest_coverLast year, while researching my third novel, I was lucky enough to come across Carl Hoffman’s Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller’s Tragic Quest for Primitive Art (2014) It is simply one of the best nonfiction travel adventure stories I have read in a very long time. An award-winning American journalist, Hoffman recounts his fascinating journey to Papua New Guinea, where he retraces the last art-collecting expedition made by anthropologist Michael Rockefeller. He juxtaposes his own travels through the Asmat region with a fictive reconstruction of Rockefeller’s final days before his mysterious disappearance, based on extensive archival research and new eyewitness accounts. He effortlessly combines mystery, adventure, personal self-discovery and colonial history into one captivating novel.

The Travelers_cover
When reviewing my bookshelf last week, I noticed I’ve bought quite a few international thrillers and mysteries featuring American expat protagonists this past year. So in that vein, I’m most looking forward to reading Chris Pavone’s The Travelers, (Crown, March 2016). Pavone is an American writer whose first novel, The Expats, is set primarily in the capitals of Luxembourg, Belgium and France. That book was a stylish, fast-paced thriller, yet what caught my attention the most was the lyrical and natural way in which he described these cities without slowing the plot down. His latest thriller promises to crisscross South America and Europe. I can’t wait to read it!

Gallery Pieces_coverAnother mystery/thriller I just learned about is Gallery Pieces: An Art Mystery, by Larry Witham (Archway Publishing, 2015). It’s about an American art expert who travels through Europe attempting to track down artwork stolen during World War Two. it sounds like a great story. Editor’s note: Larry Witham is a former journalist and foreign correspondent who became a full-time writer and artist (painting and drawing) around ten years ago.

Jennifer S. Alderson is the author of Down and Out in Kathmandu and American expat in the Netherlands.


MARIANNE BOHR, Displaced Nation columnist and memoirist

TheRentCollectorOf the travel/expat books I read in 2015, three come to mind immediately. The first is The Rent Collector, by Camron Wright (Shadow Mountain, 2013). This gritty yet heart-warming story is set in the largest municipal dump located on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, a country about which I knew little. A couple with a chronically ill son live in a hovel in the dump, surviving day-to-day from what they can salvage and sell. They struggle to pay the titular rent collector, a bitter, alcoholic woman, every month. Books play a key role in this tale of perseverance.

Wright was inspired to write the book by his son Trevor’s 2012 documentary, River of Victory, who in turn was inspired by the people he met when volunteering as a humanitarian aid worker for the Cambodian Children’s Fund.

A Sport and a Pastime_coverLast year I also enjoyed reading the classic novel A Sport and a Pastime, by James Salter, which was originally published in 1967. (it was republished by Open Road Media in 2012). It’s an erotic tale told in tight prose that takes place in a small town in France. I couldn’t put it down.
Editor’s note: James Salter, who died last year, had a passion for European culture and particularly for France. Though he eventually became a full-time writer, he started his life as an officer in the United States Air Force, just after the end of World War II, and was stationed overseas, in Korea, Germany and France.

Coconut Latitudes_coverAnother book I enjoyed was The Coconut Latitudes: Secrets, Storms and Survival in the Caribbean, by Rita M. Gardner. It’s a coming-of-age memoir set in the Dominican Republic, where Gardner’s father transplanted his young American family. What begins as a dream of life in paradise soon takes a few wrong turns. The book, which came out a year before mine with She Writes Press, was a Gold Medal Winner for Autobiography/Memoir at the IBPA Benjamin Franklin Awards. Editor’s Note: Rita Gardner is a Displaced Nationer who was interviewed for A Picture Says… and featured for Valentine’s Day. Her book was on our “Best of 2014” list.)

Things Can Only Get Feta_coverThis year, I’m looking forward to reading Things Can Only Get Feta: Two journalists and their crazy dog living through the Greek crisis, by Marjory McGinn (2nd Ed.; Pelagos Press, 2015)
I’ve read many memoirs about expats on the isles of Greece, but this one by a transplanted Scottish couple intrigues me because of its location on the Mani Peninsula of the Peloponnese. The rugged landscape and fierce independent people of this part of Greece has always been on my list to visit for an extended period of time, and I can’t wait to delve into this volume. Editor’s note: Marjory McGinn’s sequel, Homer Is Where the Heart Is, made the Displaced Nation’s Best of 2015 nonfiction expat books.

TheDiscoveryofFrance_coverAnother volume on my bedside table is The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography, by Graham Robb (W.W. Norton & Company, 2008). I have owned this book for almost eight years, ever since it was published. I am a Francophile through and through and yet, the book keeps getting pushed aside for others. A history of France from the perspective of its provinces, it received outstanding reviews when it was published, and I am determined to read it in 2016. Editor’s note: For those who like stories of displacement, the author, Graham Robb, is originally from Manchester, UK, but took his Ph.D. in French literature from the University of Tennessee. He married an alumna of Vanderbilt University, and they live in Oxford, UK.

Peanut Butter and Naan_cover Another book on my to-read list is Jennifer Hillman-Magnuson’s Peanut Butter and Naan: Stories of an American Mom in the Far East, which came out with She Writes Press in 2014. This story by a woman whose husband is transferred from the US to India intrigued me the moment I read a review. They uproot their family of five children from their pampered existence in Nashville, Tennessee, to India, where they encounter extreme poverty, malaria, and no conveniences. I’m particularly interested in reading about how the children reacted to the move.

Marianne C. Bohr is the author of Gap Year Girl: A Baby Boomer Adventure Across 21 Countries, which came out last year with She Writes Press. It was on the Displaced Nation’s Best of 2015 list for expat nonfiction. She also contributes an occasional column, World of Words, to the Displaced Nation.


JESSICA PAN, expat and memoirist

TheUnbecoming_coverThe best book I read last year about displaced/expat/travel themes was The Unbecoming, by Rebecca Scherm (Viking, 2015). It’s about a first-class jewel thief Julie from California, who’s really Grace from Tennessee. She makes her way to Paris, where she works for a shady antiques restorer, turning out objets d’art that are exquisite fakes. I loved how the protagonist re-invents herself in Paris—and yet, of course, her past comes back to find her. Gripping and inventive, with an unpredictable love story.

This year I’m looking forward to reading Cities I’ve Never Lived In: Stories, by Sara Majka, which came out with Graywolf Press in January. Cities_Ive_Never_Lived_In_coverOnce again, these linked short stories are about reinvention, which is one of my favorite things about living abroad (and I like to think about the many versions of myself I’ve formed and perhaps left in Beijing, Melbourne and now London).

Majka’s is the second book to come out in a collaboration between Graywolf and the journal A Public Space, to which Majka has contributed (they are also promoting her book). She made her debut in the journal seven years ago with the short story “Saint Andrews Hotel”; you can read it here.

Jessica Pan is the co-author of the 2014 memoir Graduates in Wonderland: The International Misadventures of Two (Almost) Adults. A graduate of Brown University, she worked as an editor of an expat magazine and a TV report in Beijing, earned a journalism degree in Melbourne, Australia, and now makes her living as a London-based writer.


H.E. RYBOL, Displaced Nation columnist, adult TCK and author

Write_This_Second_coverOne of the best books I read last year was Write This Second, by Kira Lynne Allen (Prashanti Press, 2015). Written in verse, the book tells the author’s story about overcoming trauma and reclaiming her life. Allen searingly chronicles a childhood blown apart by racism, incest, and rape, and a young adulthood marred by addiction, domestic violence and post-traumatic stress—but then she finds redemption in the recovery process and healing in her art. A sense of displacement permeates part of the book. Like other readers, I found the experience of this book life changing.

Thank You for Being Expendable_coverAnother book I enjoyed reading last year was Thank You For Being Expendable: And Other Experiences, by Colby Buzzell (Byliner, 2015). Buzzell is an Iraq War veteran, and he wrote these stories, 36 in total, over a decade of making his way back home. Though there were aspects of his adventures I didn’t appreciate, I really took to his style. Like Kira Lynne Allen, he is honest and unfiltered. I also liked that he takes his readers to China, England and other places exploring underground culture while he attempts to return to civilian life and the sense of being expendable.

Florence_and_Me_coverMy last pick for top 2015 reads is Florence and Me: The story of how the city of Florence befriended an American girl from Brooklyn, by Elaine Bertolotti (self-published, 2014). Bertolotti is a proud Italian American whose grandparents were born in Italy. She moved to Florence in the 1970s and taught English while also somehow managing to start up her own art studio and sustain an artistic career. She took pains to master the Italian language as well. Bertolotti says she likes to think of herself as one of the pioneers who paved the road for all the Americans who’ve followed her into the expat life in Italy. Her book is a short, fun read.

My Life on the Road_coverThis year I’m looking forward to reading Gloria Steinem’s My Life on the Road (Random House, 2015). Can’t wait!
Beth’s note: I’m also reading this, this month. It’s great so far!
Editor’s note: Steinem’s book, her first in 20 years, is on the Displaced Nation’s Best of 2015 expat nonfiction list. We gave her the status of honorary expat for her extensive travels within and outside the United States.

HE Rybol is the author of Culture Shock: A Practical Guide and contributes the Culture Shock Toolbox column to the Displaced Nation.


SHANNON YOUNG, expat, author, and Displaced Nation columnist

Here Comes the Sun_coverOne of the best books I read last year was the memoir Here Comes the Sun: A Journey to Adoption in 8 Chakras, by Leza Lowitz (Stone Bridge Press, 2015). Lowitz is an American woman who travels to Japan and falls in love with a Japanese man and begins a life with him in Tokyo. Together they pursue adoption and start a yoga studio. What I liked: Lowitz writes about her experiences with heartfelt vulnerability. Her prose is often poetic as she gets at the heart of the displaced experience and explores a longing for motherhood that took her by surprise. Editor’s note: Leza Lowitz still lives in Tokyo with her husband and son. She calls herself an “accidental global citizen.” She is the author of 17 books in several different genres.

Seafaring Women_coverAnother book I enjoyed was Seafaring Women: Adventures of Pirate Queens, Female Stowaways, and Sailors’ Wives, by David Cordingly (Random House, 2009). It’s an account of the lives of women during the golden age of sail. These are true stories of women who left their homes to go to sea and settle in port towns all over the globe. What I liked: This book is a different take on the displaced theme. It explores the lives of real women who had a unique kind of expat experience in the great seafaring days. As with modern expats, some went to sea for adventure, some were pursuing employment opportunities (occasionally but not always disguised as men), and some were accompanying spouses. One thing’s for sure: nothing is better than real-life female pirates!

The Expatriates A Novel_coverThis year, I’m most looking forward to The Expatriates, by Janice Y.K. Lee (Viking, January 2016). Lee’s novel follows the lives of three expatriate women in Hong Kong. Why I’m interested: Lee’s first novel, The Piano Teacher, was one of the first books I read about Hong Kong. In fact, I bought it on the plane after visiting my now-husband several months before moving to Hong Kong to be with him. I’m looking forward to reading her new novel about the expatriate experience and comparing it to my own life as an expat here.

Shannon Young is a Hong Kong-based expat, Displaced Nation columnist (she contributes the bimonthly column Diary of an Expat Writer) and author of the new release Ferry Tale.

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Thanks, everyone, for your contributions!

Still not seeing the right book for your next armchair adventure? Browsing ML’s great posts about fiction and nonfiction reads for 2016 is an excellent place to start. And, if you’re interested in Asia, I’d also recommend this blog post by Australian-born British novelist and writer Renae Lucas Hall, who writes about Japan. She’s listed some very intriguing books about Japan that she read in 2015 or will be reading in 2016.

So, readers, what’s on your bedside tables, and are you planning to add any of the above books?

Till next time and happy reading!

As always, please let me or ML know if you have any suggestions for books you’d like to see reviewed here! And I urge you to sign up for the DISPLACED DISPATCH, which has at least one Recommended Read every week.

STAY TUNED for more fab posts!

Beth Green is an American writer living in Prague, Czech Republic. She grew up on a sailboat and, though now a landlubber, continues to lead a peripatetic life, having lived in Asia as well as Europe. Her personal Web site is Beth Green Writes. She has also launched the site Everyday Travel Stories. To keep in touch with her in between columns, try following her on Facebook and Twitter. She’s a social media nut!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to subscribe to The Displaced Dispatch, a weekly round up of posts from The Displaced Nation and much, much more. Sign up for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

BOOKLUST, WANDERLUST: Beach bound? Check out summer reading recommendations from featured authors (2/2)

booklust-wanderlust-2015

Attention displaced bookworms! Our book review columnist, Beth Green, an American expat in Prague (she is also an Adult Third Culture Kid), empties the remainder of her treasure chest that she brought to us two days ago, stuffed with recommended reads to take you through the summer.

Hello again. As explained in Part One of this post, I reached out to some of my bookish friends as well as a few of the authors whose books I’ve recently reviewed to see what books they recommend taking on vacation. I asked them to tell me:

Summer Reading 2015

Photo credits: Amazon Kindle PDF, by goXunuReviews via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); beach chair and sandy feet via Pixabay.

Here are the rest of the recommendations I received, including a few from yours truly and ML Awanohara (Displaced Nation’s founding editor) at the end. Enjoy!

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MARK ADAMS, best-selling travel writer and author of Meet Me In Atlantis (which we reviewed in May): My recommendations are a classic travelogue, a biography of an intrepid traveler, and an adventure novel.

The-Snow_Leopard_cover_300xThe Snow Leopard, by Peter Matthiessen (Viking Press, 1978)
Shortly before he died, I had the honor of interviewing Matthiessen at his home on Long Island. I was surprised by how concerned he seemed, knowing that his death was rapidly approaching, that he would be remembered less as a novelist than as the author of The Snow Leopard. I went back to reread it for the first time in twenty years and was amazed by how good it was—a moving story about a man’s search for meaning through Zen Buddhism after the death of his young wife, intertwined flawlessly with a thrilling narrative about an incredible journey through the Himalayas. So fresh and evocative it could have been published yesterday.

Bruce-Chatwin_A-Biography_cover_300xBruce Chatwin: A Biography, by Nicholas Shakespeare (Anchor, 2001)
Chatwin, of course, is one of the great travel writers of all time; he practically reinvented the genre with books like In Patagonia and The Songlines. But as Shakespeare’s brilliant biography demonstrates, Chatwin’s greatest creation may have been the globetrotting persona that he carefully presented to the world. The descriptions—decodings might be a better term—of how Chatwin assembled his literary works will be absolutely riveting to anyone who has tried his or her hand at trying to pin down the essence of a place using only words.

State-of-Wonder_cover_300xState of Wonder, by Ann Patchett (HarperCollins, 2011)
I once heard Ann Patchett on the radio, talking about the job of a novelist. She described it as “creating a world.” No one creates worlds with quite the skill that Patchett does. Reading her descriptions of pharmaceutical research being conducted in the Amazon is like being dropped into the jungle—you can feel the sweat beading on your forehead and the buzz of malarial mosquitoes preparing to land on the back of your neck. And you know what? Patchett’s Bel Canto, which takes place in Lima, Peru, is an equally brilliant tale that performs the magic tricks that only great fiction can, allowing you to read minds and travel through time and space.


MARIANNE C. BOHR, Displaced Nationer and author of the soon-to-be-published Gap Year Girl: A Baby Boomer Adventure Across 21 Countries: My summer reads are usually of the meaty kind because as a teacher, I have more time in July and August to pay close attention and savor every word. As one who suffers wanderlust daily, my three choices all have to do with travel. They are very different books, but each grabs my heart in a different way and I could read them over and over, each time discovering something new.
Bohr Collage

The Drifters, by James A. Michener (Random House, 1971)
This book takes me back to my youth and the thirst for exotic adventure that goes along with being young.

Nothing to Declare: Memoirs of a Woman Traveling Alone, by Mary Morris (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1998)
I wanted to head straight to Mexico when I read this heart-wrenching book and also felt like the author was a new friend when I finished.

An Italian Affair, by Laura Fraser (Vintage, 2001)
What a guilty pleasure immersing myself in this book of islands, romance, lust and longing is. I could read it again and again.


SHIREEN JILLA, adult TCK and former expat and author of The Art of Unpacking Your Life (which we reviewed in May) and Exiled (which we featured in 2011): I would pack three very different books:
Jilla Collage

Red Dust: A Path Through China, by Ma Jian (Vintage, 2002)
Dissident artist Ma Jian’s diary of his walk across China in the wake of his divorce and threatened arrest is utterly enlightening, moving, profound and playful. Walking is clearly an under-rated pastime.

Look at Me, by Jennifer Egan (Anchor, 2009)
A powerful, beautiful novel about the crazed nature of modern urban life, it elevates Egan to one of the greats of American literature.

Paris Stories, by Mavis Gallant (NYRB Classics, 2011)
A regular writer for the New Yorker, Gallant penned these short stories about expats and exiles in Europe particularly Paris. They are brilliantly laid bare. (Born in Montreal, Gallant moved to Paris when she was 28 determined to be a full-time writer. She lived there until her death in 2014.)


BETH GREEN, writer, expat, TCK and BOOKLUST, WANDERLUST columnist: Here are my three picks, one of which I’ve not read and two that I have:

The-Messenger-of-Athens_cover_300xThe Messenger of Athens by Anne Zouroudi (Reagan Author Books, 2010)
Summer is the best time to really sink into a mystery series. I love taking a few titles from an established series and binge reading them on the beach or by the pool. Previously, I’ve done this with Elizabeth George’s Inspector Lynley novels, Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum books and Charlaine Harris’ Southern Vampire mysteries. This year I’ll be spending some time on the beach in Greece, so I’ve got my eyes set on British writer Anne Zouroudi’s Greek Inspector mysteries, which depict ugly crimes based on the seven deadly sins in beautiful Mediterranean surroundings. The series now has seven books, of which Messenger is the first. (Born in England, Zouroudi worked in the UK and the USA before giving it all up to live on a Greek island. She married a Greek as well.)

swamplandia_coverSwamplandia! by Karen Russell (Vintage, 2011)
This darkly fascinating and somewhat magical story of a girl and her siblings abandoned in a run-down theme park in Florida fascinated me when I read it a few years ago. It’s both a chilling odyssey into a swampland netherworld and an exploration of subcultures of the kind rarely seen in American books. For me it had the right amount of tension to keep you turning pages and the right amount of whimsy to keep the potentially depressing material light enough for a summer read.

Daughter-of-Fortune_cover_300xDaughter of Fortune, by Isabel Allende, trans. by Margaret Sayers Peden (Harper, 2014)
Summer is a time for voyages—or at least reading about them! I can name a whole bagful of road trip books I’d happily re-read over summer, but for pure swashbuckling joy I have to recommend Isabel Allende’s historical cross-cultural adventure Daughter of Fortune. An upper-class girl raised in an English enclave in Chile in the 1800s stows away to follow her lover to the gold fields of California. I haven’t read the sequel, Portrait in Sepia, yet, but I’m guessing it’s also worth adding to that beach bag. (Born in Peru and raised in Chile, Allende lives in California.)


ML AWANOHARA, former expat and Displaced Nation founding editor: We are constantly reporting on new displaced reads in the Displaced Dispatch, which comes out once a week. Just to give you a taste of the kinds of things we feature, here is a selection. As you can see, it comprises a work of historical nonfiction that reads like a novel, a memoir with elements of Nordic myth, and a novel by a once-displaced poet, all with beach-bag potential.

Daughters_of_the_Samurai_cover_300xDaughters of the Samurai: A Journey from East to West and Back, by Janice P. Nimura (W.W. Norton, May 2015)
Call it the early Japanese version of our gap year or junior year abroad. The story begins in 1871, after Commodore Perry’s ships opened Japan to the outside world, when five young women were sent to the United States on a mission to learn Western ways and help nurture a new generation of enlightened Japanese leaders. Three of them stayed for ten years and returned to Japan determined to revolutionize women’s education. Several critics have said the book reads like a modern fairy tale. But if the women faced many hurdles in the course of their unusual journey, the tale doesn’t necessarily end happily ever after. “I cannot tell you how I feel,” one of them remarked upon her return to her native land, “but I should like to give one good scream.” Janice Nimura, an American who is married to a Japanese, has spent time living in Japan.

Passage-of-the-stork_cover_300xPassage of the Stork: One Woman’s Journey to Self-Realization and Acceptance, by Madeleine Lenagh (Springtime Books, March 2015)
Madeleine Lenagh is American but spent her first five years as an expat child in Europe, after which she grew up in Connecticut. Rebelling against her mother’s interference in her love life, she set out to travel across Europe alone. Arriving in the Netherlands broke, she took a job as an au pair—and the rest is history. She has now been living in the land of cheese and tulips for over four decades and speaks fluent Dutch. But that’s her travel history. Her own personal history remained repressed until she wrote this memoir. One of the things that interests me about it is that Lenagh chose to weave together the narrative using Nordic mythology. (As long-term followers of the Displaced Nation will know, we are fond of doing the same with the Alice in Wonderland story.) Passage of the Stork is a publication of Springtime Books, the new fledgling of Summertime Publishing, which specializes in books by expats and for expats and is the brainchild of global nomad Jo Parfitt.

hausfrau_coverHausfrau, by Jill Alexander Essbaum (Random House, March 2015)
This novel by Texas-born American poet Jill Alexander Essbaum, her first, depicts an American woman in a cross-cultural marriage to a Swiss banker. They are living with their three young children in a postcard-perfect suburb of Zürich. In the spirit of Essbaum’s erotic poetry, Anna (yes, the name is a nod to Tolstoy’s heroine) engages in a series of messy affairs. Now, is this book the expat answer to Fifty Shades? Actually, the answer to that question interests me less than the fact that Essbaum herself was once a hausfrau in Dietlikon, near Zürich, where she moved with her first husband, an American interested in studying Jungian psychoanalysis. Like Anna, she experienced intense loneliness and isolation—albeit no torrid affairs. Who would have guessed?

* * *

Thank you so much for your recommendations, ML and everyone else! Readers, it’s your turn now. What books are you looking forward to popping in the book bag this summer? And, for our friends in the Southern Hemisphere, what books are getting you through the winter?

Also, can I echo ML’s contribution by urging you to sign up for the DISPLACED DISPATCH, which has at least one Recommended Read every week. And please feel welcome to make recommendations for books to be featured in the Dispatch, and in this column, by contacting ML at ML@thedisplacednation.com.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

Beth Green is an American writer living in Prague, Czech Republic. She grew up on a sailboat and, though now a landlubber, continues to lead a peripatetic life, having lived in Asia as well as Europe. Her personal Web site is Beth Green Writes. She has also launched the site Everyday Travel Stories. To keep in touch with her in between columns, try following her on Facebook and Twitter. She’s a social media nut!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to subscribe to The Displaced Dispatch, a weekly round up of posts from The Displaced Nation and much, much more. Sign up for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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BOOKLUST, WANDERLUST: Beach bound? Check out summer reading recommendations from featured authors (1/2)

booklust-wanderlust-2015

Attention displaced bookworms! Our book review columnist, Beth Green, an American expat in Prague (she is also an Adult Third Culture Kid), has arrived with a treasure chest full of recommended reads to take you through the summer. NOTE: Check out Part Two here.

Hello again, Displaced Nationers!

Summer is upon us—well, for readers in the northern hemisphere, that is! And for those in the United States, Fourth of July weekend is coming shortly. Even if you’re not beach bound, perhaps you are at least picturing yourself sitting in a beach chair feeling the sand through your toes, the waves pounding towards you, the fresh, bracing sea air filling your lungs…

And what’s that you have in your hand—a book or a Kindle?

I find the sound of the waves and the ocean breeze the perfect conditions for escaping into other worlds that writers conjure up for us in their books. This summer, I’ve already been to a few local parks with my e-reader, and I’ll soon be topping it up with some of the books from our best-of-2014 list for an overseas trip. But I’m always on the look-out for fresh new material, and as there are miles to go before I can flop down on the beach of my dreams, I fear I’ll run out of prime reading matter by then. With this eventuality in mind, I decided to reach out to a few of the authors whose books I’ve recently read or reviewed, along with a few of my bookish friends, to see what books they recommend taking on vacation. I asked them to tell me:

Summer Reading 2015

Photo credits: Amazon Kindle PDF, by goXunuReviews via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); beach chair and sandy feet via Pixabay.

They responded with recommendations that seem tailor made for an audience of international creatives. Enjoy! Part 2 will be posted on Friday.

* * *

ALLI SINCLAIR, world traveler, Australian romance author and former co-blogger at Novel Adventurers: I recommend that you bring one travel book, one classic, and one novel. The following make a good combination:

ChasingtheMonsoon_cover_x300Chasing the Monsoon: A Modern Pilgrimage Through India, by Alexander Frater (Henry Holt & Co, May 1992)
There are some books that touch something in your soul that stays with you forever. For me, Chasing the Monsoon falls into that category. Originally published in the early nineties (and thankfully, still available!), Alexander Frater follows the monsoonal rains from the Kerala backwaters in southern India to Cherrapunji, in northern India—known as the wettest place on earth. Frater connects beautifully with the people he meets and he writes for all senses, giving the reader a full immersion into one of the most captivating countries on Earth.

The Ascent of Rum Doodle_cover_x300The Ascent of Rum Doodle, by W.E. Bowman (Vintage Classics, 2010)
Originally published in 1956 but still in print, this book is one of the most celebrated mountaineering stories of all time. The 1950s saw some of the world’s highest mountains successfully climbed (including Everest), and this book is a parody of mountaineering at it’s finest…er, worst. There’s a route finder who is constantly lost, a diplomat who continually argues, and a doctor who is always ill. Rum Doodle will most definitely appeal to fans of Bill Bryson, who wrote the introduction to the book’s international edition (published in 2010).

HellofromtheGillespies_cover_x300Hello From The Gillespies, by Monica McInerney (Penguin, 2014)
I’m a long time fan of Monica McInerney’s books, maybe because Monica is a “displaced” person: having grown up in Australia, she has split her time between Australia and Ireland for the past 20 years. This book is mostly set in outback Australia but with ties to England. Angela Gillespie, a mother of four adult children, has sent out a regular Christmas letter to friends and family for thirty years. The notes are always cheery and full of good news but this year, her note details the unsettling truth of how her family has fallen apart. If you enjoy family sagas with humour and heart, you can’t go wrong with this book. (True, some people recommend it for the holidays, but it’s summer in Australia at Christmas time, remember?)


BRITTANI SONNENBERG, adult TCK, current expat and author of Home Leave (which we reviewed in November): I would pack the following books (assuming I’d be packing it for someone else, who hadn’t read them yet).
Sonnenberg_collage

The Dog, by Joseph O’Neill (Vintage, September 2014)
It’s a devilish, compelling take on cosmopolitan and expat life by the TCK author of Netherland. (Joseph O’Neill was born in Cork, Ireland, in 1964 and grew up in Mozambique, South Africa, Iran, Turkey, and Holland. He now lives in New York City.)

Ghana Must Go, by Taiye Selasi (Penguin, 2014)
This is an intimate examination of a splintered family, set in Accra, Lagos, London, and New York.

All My Puny Sorrows, by Miriam Toews (McSweeney’s, 2014)
One of the saddest and funniest books I’ve ever read; an honest, moving portrayal of sisters and mental illness.


CHRISTINE KLING, author of travel- and sailing-related thrillers: I’ve just finished up the edits on a the third novel in my Shipwreck Adventure series, and I’m looking forward to taking a bit of time off from writing and working at reading my way through some of the long list of books I’ve been wanting to read. The three books I’d take in my beach bag include two novels and a combination cookbook/memoir/travelogue.

The-Janissary-Tree_cover_x300The Janissary Tree, by Jason Goodwin (Sarah Crichton Book, 2006)
My husband and I are contemplating building a new boat in Turkey, and after our recent visit, I’ve fallen in love with the country. Jason Goodwin has written travel books, histories, and thrillers, and I’ve been waiting for the chance to begin reading his work. The Janissary Tree, winner of the 2007 Edgar Award for Best Novel, is the first in what is now his five-book series set in in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire’s Istanbul. The series features a very unique protagonist Yashim Togalu, a eunuch guardian. In this book, Yashim is called upon to investigate a series of crimes including murder and theft of jewels.

Marina_cover_x300Marina by Carlos Ruiz Zafón (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2014)
The first book I read by this author was The Shadow of the Wind, which I often cite as one of my favorite books of all time. I knew Zafón had written a young adult novel that was published in 1999 and became a “cult classic” in Spanish, and since I enjoy good YA novels like the Harry Potter series and the Hunger Games, I was happy to see this book finally released in English in 2014. Marina is set in Barcelona around 1980 at the end of Franco’s regime. This gothic tale is touted as containing elements of mystery, romance and horror as a young boarding school boy meets the exotic, dark Marina. Together they embark on a series of adventures where they meet the kind of grotesque Barcelona characters Zafón does so well.

Sea-Fare_cover_x300Sea Fare: A Chef’s Journey Across the Ocean, by Victoria Allman (Norlightspress Com, 2013)
Years ago I worked as a chef on our owner-operated charter sailboat, and I know what it is like to have to create meals for demanding guests. Victoria Allman is in an entirely different category as she trained as a chef and has worked your years on multi-million dollar yachts. In Sea Fare, Allman has combined the tales from her beginning as a green Canadian chef looking for a job in the charter yacht industry to the joys of shopping in exotic markets from Italy to Vietnam. From the descriptions of her experiences on board the yacht, dealing with crew problems and falling in love with the captain, the stories are grand, but the recipes and the outstanding color photos of the food, will probably cut my trip to the beach short as I head home to try some new dish.


HEIDI NOROOZY, adult TCK, translator and author of multicultural fiction: I just returned from a research trip to Germany, and my choices seem to reflect that! (I went there because I’m writing a novel about an East German detective, Johannes Christian Alexander Freiherr von Maibeck—I know, it’s a bit of a mouthful—I created for a short story I once wrote. The setting is Leipzig, German Democratic Republic, 1981.)

The-Leipzic-Affair_cover_x300The Leipzig Affair, by Fiona Rintoul (Aurora Metro Press, May 2015)
Set in 1985, this novel tells the story of a Scottish student at Leipzig University who falls in love with an East German girl and stumbles into a world of shifting half-truths. Well written and fast paced, the story captures the atmosphere of its setting very well, a world where nothing is ever quite what it seems. As one reviewer writes: “The book is expertly written and seems to me to be a very comprehensive picture of what it was like to live in the East German state.” (Rintoul, a Scot who lives in Glasgow, gathered her material for the book by visiting East Germany and meeting a woman who had been imprisoned. She also looking at extracts of STASI files on people she met.)

Zoo-Station_cover_x300Zoo Station: Adventures in East and West Berlin, by Ian Walker (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1988)
British journalist Ian Walker, who once covered Central America for the Observer (and never managed to write his promised volume on Nicaragua), produced this travelogue on the two Berlins back in 1988. It depicts bohemian life in the once-divided city, where everyone seemed to be from somewhere else: West Berlin was full of Brits, Asians, Danes, Turks and East German exiles; East Berlin, of Anglo-Austrian expats. Walker’s descriptive narrative and reflections on the broader social issues of the day are what make this book stand out. As one of Amazon reviewer puts it:

Having read “Zoo Station”, I was able to understand why some people regarded East Germany as a pinnacle of socialist achievement, much more preferable to its capitalist twin in the West. It is good travel writing, and is both politically and culturally astute.

The-One-That-Got_Away_cover_300xThe One That Got Away, by Simon Wood (Thomas & Mercer, 2015)
Okay, this one isn’t about Germany, and I haven’t read it yet—but it’s at the top of my summer book bag. Tag line: “She escaped with her life, but the killer’s obsessed with the one that got away.” The story of two grad students in California who decide to take a road trip to to Las Vegas, this suspense novel deals with survivor’s guilt and is bound to be a thrilling ride. (Originally from England, Simon Wood lives in California with his wife.)

* * *

Readers, that’s it for this round; we’ll have another round on Friday (update: check it out here). Meanwhile, have you read any of the above and/or do you have summer reading recommendations to add? Please leave in the comments!

And if you need more frequent fixes, I urge you to sign up for the DISPLACED DISPATCH, which has at least one Recommended Read every week.

STAY TUNED for PART 2 of this post on July 3rd!

Beth Green is an American writer living in Prague, Czech Republic. She grew up on a sailboat and, though now a landlubber, continues to lead a peripatetic life, having lived in Asia as well as Europe. Her personal Web site is Beth Green Writes. She has also launched the site Everyday Travel Stories. To keep in touch with her in between columns, try following her on Facebook and Twitter. She’s a social media nut!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to subscribe to The Displaced Dispatch, a weekly round up of posts from The Displaced Nation and much, much more. Sign up for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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LOCATION, LOCUTION: Kiwi-Brit author team produce first in eco-thriller series spanning continents where they’ve lived

JJ LN Collage

Columnist JJ Marsh (left) talks to Lambert Nagle, Kiwi/Brit co-writers of international thrillers.

Today we welcome JJ Marsh back to the Displaced Nation for this month’s “Location, Locution.” If you are new to the site, JJ, who is a crime series writer (see her bio below), talks to fellow fiction writers about their methods for portraying place in their works. We’re excited that her guest today is the better half of a husband-wife team who have composed an eco-thriller that takes place all over the world, including places where they’ve been expats.

—ML Awanohara

Lambert Nagle is the pen name of co-authors Alison Ripley Cubitt and Sean Cubitt. They write thrillers set in sunny climes.

Sean’s day job is Professor of Film and Television, Goldsmiths, University of London. He has been published by leading academic publishers.

Alison worked in TV and film production for companies including the BBC and Walt Disney but her passion has always been for writing. She is an author, screenwriter and novelist.

Serial expats, Lambert Nagle have lived in Malaysia, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and are now based in leafy Hampshire.

Now let’s find out how they perceived the connection between location and locution for their debut novel, Revolution Earth. (Alison is answering for the pair.)

* * *

Which comes first, story or location?

We knew that Revolution Earth had to have a circular structure as one of the themes is that an event in one part of the world will have an impact in another. We needed a major global city for the inciting incident as well as the conclusion and we chose the one we know best—London. Sean was once a bicycle courier and he knew what it was like to have to dodge potholes and taxis in Soho and still get the delivery there on time.

We wrote the New Zealand section after we’d reluctantly left my native land and moved to Melbourne. It was a bit of a love letter to a place we adored but needed to leave in order to pursue professional opportunities abroad. In southeast Australia we were thrilled to find that there was an oil refinery—identical to one we had driven past in Cheshire years ago, which inspired the story.

What’s your technique for evoking the atmosphere of a place?

For the Antarctica portion of the story, Sean had spent four years in Canada as a post-graduate student. The memory of cold is something that never leaves you, so we drew on that, starting from the physical experience and expanding out into the visual side of things.

Photo credits (clockwise from top left): Kakadu in the Australian outback, by Muireann Ní Cheallacháin via Flickr; book cover with photo of Snowy Mountain region of New South Wales, Australia, taken by Alison Ripley Cubitt; lady bicyclist in London, by Danica via Flickr; Alberta, Canada, by davebloggs007 via Flickr (all Flickr photos CC BY 2.0).

How well do you need to know the place before using it as a setting?

Revolution Earth was originally a screenplay. As a screenwriter you have to know a place extremely well before you’d dare use it as a setting. Film is a literal medium and your job is to give very clear instructions about an actual place—as a camera has to be able to film the location exactly as you’ve described it. So we went to extremes: including a trip to a uranium mine in the Outback, thousands of miles from where we lived in Australia.

Eventually we realised we needed to write a novel first, before we could interest film-makers. But by then, we knew we couldn’t get to every location and would have to inhabit some places purely through imagination. The important thing is that the imagined places have to be just as detailed, just as carefully tuned to the physical experience of being there, as the real ones. Something really familiar like a dusty, disorganised office in a backstreet in the East End of London should be as deeply felt as battling a storm in a leaky boat in the Southern Ocean encircling Antarctica. As someone who goes green at the mention of the phrase “rough seas,” this is where the imagination comes in as well.

The liberation of cresting the top of a hill on a bicycle before swooping down towards the valley is the same everywhere, but knowing the twists of the road, the steepness of it, how it burns up your lungs before filling them with joy, is all the richer if you can take your reader into what is special about this road, this time of year, for this character.

Which particular features create a sense of location: landscape, culture, food?

Whether it’s real or imagined, a place comes as a feeling first. Then you identify the elements of that feeling: what can you hear, smell, see, taste. How do people talk? Hot, cold, windy or still? What plants and animals, how personal or impersonal, what sense of the past, ancient or recent, does it communicate and what are the things that carry that sense—things like the absence of birdsong or the sound of a kettle boiling. Sometimes you reach out to the reader to share an experience, but sometimes you have to lead them into an experience they have never had, and then it’s often the emotion of the characters and scene that drive the description rather than its physical elements.

Can you give an example from Revolution Earth that illustrates place?

Great mountains of blue-white floating in a sea caught between the colour of the sky and the fresh green of young pine forests under mid-summer sun. Between them, smaller floes drifted about aimlessly, as though in some kind of trance. On the horizon she saw, thanks to Novak, a steep rise of endless white cliffs. This must be where the glaciers came down to the sea, where the icebergs calved. It was as alien a place as she had ever seen, more alien even than a science fiction film because it was right there, illuminated for her in the startling clarity of dazzling sunshine.

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?

For Sean, Dickens immediately comes to mind: hardly a scene goes by that isn’t redolent of a life lived in it—stuffy banqueting rooms, Essex marshes, debtors’ prison… I admire Tim Winton who writes about his home state of Western Australia in such a way that I just want to jump on a plane and go there. He’s as comfortable describing what life’s like for the struggling poor living in beachside shacks as he is showing the reader what the inside of a wave looks like from a surfer’s point-of-view.

* * *

Readers, if this interview has piqued your curiosity about Lambert Nagle and the Cubitts, we encourage you to visit their author site.

JJ Marsh grew up in Wales, Africa and the Middle East, where her curiosity for culture took root and triggered an urge to write. After living in Hong Kong, Nigeria, Dubai, Portugal and France, JJ finally settled in Switzerland, where she is currently halfway through her European crime series, set in compelling locations all over the continent and featuring detective inspector Beatrice Stubbs.

STAY TUNED for next month’s Location, Locution, with Carl Plummer, who lives in China and writes comic thrillers as Robert E. Towsie.

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BOOKLUST, WANDERLUST: 2014–2015 books recommended by expats & other international creatives (2/2)

Globe Bookshelf Part TwoHello Displaced Nationers! As those who caught Part One of this post last week will know, we are continuing the party we had at the end of last year in publishing a Best of 2014 in expat books list by soliciting various international creatives and other “displaced” contacts for more recommended books.

In Part One, several of my bookworm friends from a previous blog, Novel Adventurers, along with ML and JJ Marsh (JJ writes the Location, Locution column for Displaced Nation), revealed their favorite 2014 reads.

In Part Two, below, kicking off with yours truly, we talk about releases we’re hotly anticipating this year.

A “forthcoming reads” roundtable, if you will.

—Beth Green

* * *

BETH GREEN: I actively search out books by Elizabeth George, the American author of the Inspector Lynley mystery novels set in Britain, and Elizabeth Gilbert, who achieved fame with her travel memoir, Eat, Pray, Love. 2015 is a great year for me as both Elizabeths have books coming out.

A_Banquet_of_Consequence_300s_coverA Banquet of Consequences (Inspector Lynley Book 19), by Elizabeth George, due out in October.
Synopsis: Lynley and Havers are drawn from Cambridge to London to the windswept town of Shaftesbury during one of their most complex cases yet: the murder of a feminist writer and speaker.
Why I’m excited: Though actually not in the “expat” realm, I have to confess it’s the book I’m most looking forward to reading. I’m a huge fan of George’s diverse characters and elaborate stories.

BigMagic_cover_300Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, by Elizabeth Gilbert, due out in September.
Synopsis: Gilbert digs deep into her own creative process to share her wisdom and unique perspective about creativity.
Why I’m excited: As some readers may recall, I reviewed her novel The Signature of All Things last fall for this column. It seems that Gilbert is now turning her hand to self-help/motivational books for us creatives. I’m intrigued, and I figure other international creatives should be as well.

Three other upcoming books, by authors I’ve not come across before, have also caught my eye:

Displacement_cover_300Displacement, by Lucy Knisley, due out February 8th.
Synopsis: A graphic-novel-style/comic-book travelogue reporting on a cruise ship trip to the Caribbean Knisley took with her grandparents.
What interests me: Even though I seldom read graphic novels, I’m curious to pick it up, especially given its title(!). Knisley has two previous travelogues in graphic form: French Milk (her six-week trip to Paris to celebrate a milestone birthday) and An Age of License (her all-expenses trip to Europe/Scandinavia).

Meet_Me_in_Atlantis_cover_300Meet Me in Atlantis: My Obsessive Quest to Find the Sunken City, by Mark Adam, due out in March
Synopsis: A few years ago, travel writer Mark Adams made a strange discovery: everything we know about the lost city of Atlantis comes from the work of one man, the Greek philosopher Plato. Then he made a second, stranger discovery: amateur explorers are still actively searching for this sunken city all around the world, based entirely on the clues Plato left behind. Adams decides to track these people down. He reports on what he learns from scientists and amateur historians who all share his curiosity about the facts and fiction surrounding the “lost city.”
What interests me: Count me in that curious group!

The Porcelain Thief: Searching for the Middle Kingdom in Buried China, by Huan Hsu (forthcoming in March).
The_Porcelain_Thief_cover_300Synopsis: The author, raised in Utah, goes back to his ancestral homeland in China, in part to look for porcelain and other treasures his great-great-grandfather may have buried before the family fled the Sino-Japanese War.
What interests me: As a former expat in China, I love anything about this part of the world, and this displaced family saga sounds particularly fascinating!


ML AWANOHARA: I am always on the lookout for books that could be of interest to the Displaced Nation readership. (Whether I end up reading them or not is a different matter!) I’m sure this is just the tip of the iceberg, but thus far in 2015 I have my eye on one novel and several memoirs.

First, the novel:

The_Art_of_Unpacking_Your_Life_cover_300The Art of Unpacking Your Life, by Shireen Jilla (forthcoming in March)
Synopsis: A million miles away from their daily concerns, on a safari in the Kalahari Desert, two women who were once best friends see if they can reconnect.
What interests me: We featured Jilla’s first novel, Exiled, on the Displaced Nation shortly after we started the site as we were curious to as to why, after her own expat life in New York City, she had produced such a dark, dysfunctional family psychodrama concerning a British expat family living on the Upper East Side of New York. (Her answer was extremely satisfying!)

As to memoirs, here are three that were issued in January:

Leaving_Before_the_Rains_Come_cover_300Leaving Before the Rains Come, by Alexandra Fuller (came out in January)
Synopsis: A child of the Rhodesian wars and daughter of two deeply complicated parents, Alexandra Fuller is no stranger to pain. But the disintegration of her own marriage leaves her shattered. Looking to pick up the pieces of her life, she finally confronts the tough questions about her past, about the American man she married in hopes of being saved from the madness of her early life, and about the family she left behind in Africa.
What interests me: I so enjoyed Fuller’s first memoir, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, about growing up in a white family during the Rhodesian Bush War, I have come to think of her as a modern-day displaced heroine, or goddess: larger than life, an extraordinary mix of beauty and brains, out of this displaced world… (Hmmm… No wonder her marriage to a mere mortal didn’t last.)

Russian_Tattoo_cover_300Russian Tattoo: A Memoir, by Elena Gorokhova
SYNOPSIS: In her first memoir, A Mountain of Crumbs, Gorokhova detailed her life growing up with an iron-willed mother in Soviet-era St. Petersburg. In this follow-up, she escapes both mother and country by entering into an unsuitable marriage with an American. When her husband first brings her to live in Austin, Texas, the culture shock is extreme. He then ships her off to Princeton to live with his psychotherapist mother. There she meets her second husband and a happier future.
WHAT INTERESTS ME: Maybe because I lived abroad for so long and then had to readjust to life in the U.S., I identify very closely with immigrant stories. And for personal reasons, I’m always attracted to stories that revolve around the challenges of cross-cultural marriage.

Whipping_boy_cover_300Whipping Boy: The Forty-Year Search for My Twelve-Year-Old Bully, by Allen Kurzweil
SYNOPSIS: As a 10-year-old American shipped to a Swiss boarding school, Kurzweil endured a year of torment. Years later he set out to search for the chief bully, Cesar, who, it turned out, had gone to prison twice, having become a professional con man. In circling the globe to find Cesar, Kurzweil stands up for all who’ve been the victim of bullies.
WHAT INTERESTS ME: As we’ve always recognized on this site, some of us who are “displaced” have gothic tales to tell. Thank goodness in this case the villain picked on a man who was destined to become a world-class writer, hence able to exact an exquisite revenge.

Finally, I just now heard about another memoir whose title alone has me panting to know more: The Dead Ladies Project: Exiles, Ex-Pats and Ex-Countries, by litblog founder and book reviewer Jessa Crispin, who moved to Berlin in 2009. It’s due out in September; no book cover yet.


JJ MARSH, crime series author and Displaced Nation columnist (Location, Locution): I have a novel and a poem on my list, along with one publishing house.

A_Spool_of_Blue_Thread_300A Spool of Blue Thread: A Novel, by Anne Tyler (forthcoming this month).
Synopsis: It’s not an expat story but rather the opposite: a domestic family saga. The family, Whitshanks, have lived in Baltimore for several generations.
What interests me: Tyler wrote The Accidental Tourist (about the ultra-insular Leary family, who also live in Baltimore) and I’m curious.

“Sentenced to Life”, by Clive James (James, for those who don’t know, is an Australian writer and personality who has long lived in Britain.)
Synopsis: It’s one of James’s recent poems, published in May of last year, and can be read in full on her author site.
What interests me: I heard James on the radio talking about writing poetry about facing death and it humbled me.

I also look forward to whatever Galley Beggar Press puts out because they’re exciting and adventurous and try things other publishers will not. This strategy paid off with their Baileys Prize success of A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride last year.


The_Tutor_of_History_cover_300HEIDI NOROOZY, adult TCK, translator and author (@heidinoroozy): This year I’ve resolved to read more books in translation and stories from far-flung parts of the world. And, as I enjoy novels set in foreign locations that are told in local voices, I’ve got these two on my list:

The Tutor of History, written in English by the Nepali author Manjushree Thapa
SYNOPSIS: One of South Asia’s best-known writers, Thapa follows the lives of a variety of characters in the lead-up to local and national elections in a small town in central Nepal.
NOTE: This novel came out in 2012, but I haven’t gotten round to reading it yet.

The_Little_Paris_Bookshop_cover_300The Little Paris Bookshop, by the German author Nina George (forthcoming in English in June).
SYNOPSIS: Monsieur Perdu calls himself a literary apothecary. From his floating bookstore in a barge on the Seine, he prescribes novels for the hardships of life. The only person he can’t seem to heal through literature is himself…but will he manage to do that on a mission he takes to the south of France, with an Italian chef as his companion?
NOTE: I already read the novel in German. In Germany it spent over a year on the bestseller lists.


My_Fellow_Prisoners_cover_300KELLY RAFTERY, translator and writer: In 2015, I am looking forward to being able to read Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s collection of short stories entitled My Fellow Prisoners. Already available in Europe, it is due to have its U.S. release in late February. Convicted on thinly disguised, politically motivated charges, Mikhail Khodorkovsky went from being Russia’s richest man to a labor camp inmate in Siberia. In the decade of his incarceration, Khodorkovsky scribbled short sketches of the men he encountered, jailers and prisoners alike.


SUPRIYA SAVKOOR, editor and mystery writer: In the last roundtable, I mentioned having recently read two gripping memoirs: Not My Father’s Son, by Alan Cumming, and A Long Way Home, by Saroo Brierley. In 2015 I’m looking forward to more books that surprise me as these two did, particularly ones in which the new stories are intertwined with the old ones and make me see the grander scheme of things.


Rebel_Queen_cover_300ALLI SINCLAIR, world traveler and novelist (www.allisinclair.com): I’m a huge fan of Michelle Moran’s books and any book of hers is an automatic buy for me. Moran has an interesting story. Born in Southern California, she was a public high school teacher before becoming a writer, using her summers to travel around the world. It was her experiences as a volunteer on archaeological digs that inspired her to write historical fiction. Moran’s upcoming work, Rebel Queen, will be released in March. It’s about Queen Lakshmi—also known as India’s Joan of Arc because she stood up to the British invasion of her beloved Kingdom of Jhansi. The queen raises two armies—one male and one female—and they go into battle against the well-prepared British.

Moran’s books are rich in historical facts but the stories are so enthralling it never feels like a history lesson. Another reason I’m a fan is because she usually chooses the point of view of someone not so well known. For example, in this story the main character is Sita, one of the Queen’s trusted soldiers and companions, a device that serves to paint a less-biased picture of the more famous Queen Lakshmi.

* * *

Thank you, ML, JJ and guests! Readers, do you have any further 2015 recommendations? Please leave a comment below. And then let’s get our noses back into our books!

Finally, please be sure to sign up for the DISPLACED DISPATCH, which has a Recommended Read every week. You can also follow the Displaced Nation’s DISPLACED READS Pinterest board.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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BOOKLUST, WANDERLUST: 2014–2015 books recommended by expats & other international creatives (1/2)

Global Bookshelf Part OneHello Displaced Nationers! Looking back at the our popular series Best of 2014 in expat books, published at the end of last year, I decided we should continue the fun at the start of the year—and managed to convince our redoubtable editor, ML Awanohara, that the pair of us should canvass our “displaced” contacts to see what they’d enjoyed reading from last year’s crop of new books, as well as books they’re looking forward to reading in 2015.

A “best reads” roundtable, if you will.

In Part One, which appears below, several of my bookworm friends from a previous blog, Novel Adventurers, along with ML and JJ Marsh (JJ writes the Location, Locution column for Displaced Nation), discuss their favorite 2014 reads.

In Part Two, a similar group of us will talk about releases we’re hotly anticipating this year.

Having already shared my 2014 faves in last year’s series, I’ll concede the floor to others, beginning with ML.

—Beth Green

* * *

ML AWANOHARA: Thanks, Beth. These days, I seem to be more of a collector than a reader (I simply can’t keep up with all the titles I hear about!). If you’ll allow me to bend the rules, I’d like to highlight five more 2014 books I’ve discovered since our Best of 2014 in expat books went live. While I can’t personally recommend any of these titles, I feel justified in presenting them as an addendum to our series.

I’ll start with these four “displaced” novels, listed from most to least recent:

IHaveLivedToday_cover_300x200I Have Lived Today (October 2014)
Author: Steven Moore
Synopsis: Having barely survived his Dickensian childhood in 1960s Britain, Tristan Nancarrow sets out on a journey that will take him through the alleys of London and New York, to the rocky shores of ancient islands, and on pub crawls in dark and gloomy ports. The book is a classic coming-of-age adventure.
Expat creds: Originally from England, Moore is a writer, photographer, traveler and part-time ESL teacher who splits his time between Mexico, Korea and the world.
How we learned about: From his blog, Twenty-first Century Nomad.

SleepwalkersGuide_cover_300x200The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing (Random House, July 2014)
Author: Mira Jacob
Synopsis: This debut novel takes us on a journey that ranges from 1970s India to suburban 1980s New Mexico to Seattle during the dot.com boom. It follows the fortunes of the Eapens, an Indian American family dealing with tragedy and loss. Alternating between past and present, it shows the family’s transition from India to the United States. As one Indian critic writes, the story is “firmly rooted in an immigrant home, its peculiar methods and madness.”
Expat creds: Jacob is an Adult Third Culture Kid, whose Syrian Christian parents came over from Kerala, India, to New Mexico, in the 1960s. She now lives in Brooklyn with her Jewish American husband and son.
How we found out about: Recommended by Condé Nast Traveler as a book to read on a plane.

SummerattheLake_cover_300x200Summer at the Lake (Orion, June 2014)
Author: Erica James
Synopsis: An Oxford Tour guide, Floriana, a property developer, Adam, and Esme, an elderly woman who lives next door to a recent purchase by Adam, meet by chance and develop a lovely friendship, which takes them from the glittering spires of Oxford to the balmy shores of Lake Como. The story blends the tale of an old romance with a modern love affair.
Expat creds: James divides her time between living in Cheshire, UK, in a small rural hamlet and Lake Como, Italy, giving her plenty to draw upon in her books.
How we heard about: Pinterest.

TheBalladofaSmallPlayer_cover_300x200The Ballad of a Small Player: A Novel (Deckle Edge, April 2014)
Author: Lawrence Osborne
Synopsis: Lord Doyle decamps from the stuffy legal courtrooms of London to the smoky back-alley casinos of Macau, where he tries to capitalize on the ill-gotten gains that forced his flight from his homeland. But can he game the system at the island’s glitzy baccarat tables? With its expat angst and debauched air of moral ambiguity set amid the sinister demimonde of the Far East’s corrupt gambling dens, the book is an introspective study of decline and decay.
Expat creds: Lawrence Osborne was born in England and lives in New York City. A widely published and widely traveled journalist, he has lived a nomadic life in Mexico, Italy, France, Morocco, Cambodia and Thailand, places that he draws on in his fiction and non-fiction. His first novel was The Forgiven, which Beth Green reviewed for the Displaced Nation last year.
How we learned about: From Amazon.

Lastly, I have another expat memoir that was issued in 2014 and I think deserves a spot on our shelves:

FallinginHoney_cover_300x200Falling in Honey: How a Tiny Greek Island Stole My Heart (Sourcebooks, March 2014)
Author: Jennifer Barclay
Synopsis: Barclay first visited the tiny Greek island of Tilos, in the south Aegean, with friends, including a lover with promising prospects. In her mid-thirties when those prospects fell apart, she decides to reconnect with herself by returning to Tilos for a month and immersing herself in Greek culture, food, language, and dance. Emotionally healed and recharged, she returns to England, where she meets a man who wants what she wants, only to discover… (I won’t ruin it for you.)
Expat creds: Born in Manchester, UK, Barclay subsequently grew up on the edge of the Pennines—but has lived in Greece, Canada and France, with longish stays in Guyana and South Korea. She now lives mostly on Tilos. Notably, she previously produced a memoir about life in South Korea, amusingly titled Meeting Mr. Kim: Or How I Went to Korea and Learned to Love Kimchi.
How we learned about: Barclay’s “Gathering Road” podcast interview with Elaine Masters.


TheShadowoftheWind_coverJJ MARSH, crime series author and Displaced Nation columnist (Location, Locution): My best book of 2014 is The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Luis Záfon. All booklovers will fall hopelessly in love with this tale of a boy and a book he swears to protect after he is taken to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books by his bookseller father. Which of us could resist doing the same? Readers know how a story can act as a portal to otherwhere. This is the most perfect example, not to mention illuminating Barcelona in addition to the Franco dictatorship, love, loyalty and growth.


TheLie_coverHEIDI NOROOZY, adult TCK, translator and author (@heidinoroozy): One of the most remarkable and memorable books I’ve read recently is The Lie, by Hesh Kestin. Set in Israel, it features a Jewish human rights lawyer whose commitment to her principles is put to the test when her soldier son is kidnapped by Arab militants and whisked over the border to Lebanon. I love stories that explore the human spirit and are set against a backdrop of real-life events. The heart of this novel is the question of how far a mother is willing to go to save her child. Very chilling at times, heartbreaking at others and masterfully told overall.


PointofDirection_cover_300x200KELLY RAFTERY, translator and writer: In 2014, I loved Point of Direction, by Rachel Weaver. A starkly beautiful tale set in the Alaskan outback, it reads like a cross-cultural adventure. Most expats will recognize the feelings of culture shock, disorientation and unreality that haunt Anna, a woman on the run from her own ghosts. The sharp writing style perfectly mirrors the jagged mountains and rough seas that inhabit the novel as surely as another character.


SUPRIYA SAVKOOR, editor and mystery writer: I haven’t read many memoirs, but in recent months, I read two that blew me away. The first, Not My Father’s Son, by Alan Cumming, is a must-read, even if celebrity memoirs aren’t your thing or you don’t know much about this Scottish actor, now a dual American-British citizen based in New York City. NotMyFathersSon_cover_300x200Cumming, it turns out, is a genius storyteller, and he takes us on an extraordinary journey through two juicy family mysteries across four countries and three time periods. It is, in turns, emotional, tragic, exciting, suspenseful, and funny. The colorful cast of characters, with names like Tommy Darling and Sue Gorgeous, are real people. Along the way, you’ll learn all kinds of fascinating little tidbits, much of it cross-cultural, about genealogy, history, pop culture, language, psychology. Even Cumming’s anecdotes about his life as a TV and film star are surprisingly interesting, largely because of the author’s clear-eyed, honest wisdom. (I also highly recommend the audiobook, narrated by Cumming himself. Alongwayhome_cover_300x200 His lovely Scottish accent and intonations are an additional treat.)

A Long Way Home: A Memoir, by Saroo Brierley, is another great read. The story is simple but powerful: a five-year-old boy in rural India gets lost, is ultimately adopted to a family in Australia, then, as an adult, tracks down his birth family and reunites with them. How he pieces together his past and finds his roots is one of several beautiful mysteries in this small book. Loss and identity are obvious themes, but not just for the author. A truly unique story. (Side note: Modern technology is one of this book’s heroes.)


ASuitableBoy_coverALLI SINCLAIR, world traveler and novelist (www.allisinclair.com): I recently re-read A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth. It was released way back in 1993 and caused quite a stir in the literary world as it was one of the longest novels ever to be published in English (1,349 pages hardcover). I first read it then, and, while it’s highly unusual for me to give a book a second or third read, every few years I return to this wonderful novel rich with Indian history, family saga, and a heartbreaking romance. It’s set in post-partition India and explores the political issues at the time (1950s), along with the Hindu-Muslim issues and the caste system. It’s quite an undertaking to read this book but I enjoy revisiting the characters I love. I am very fond of stories written by Indian authors as there is a beautiful style and interesting points of view I find appealing. There’s a sequel in 2016—I can’t wait!

* * *

Thank you, ML, JJ and guests! Readers, have you read any of the above or do you have further 2014 recommendations? Please leave a comment below. And stay tuned for Part Two of this post, books to look forward to in 2015!

Finally, please be sure to sign up for the DISPLACED DISPATCH, which has a Recommended Read every week. You can also follow the Displaced Nation’s DISPLACED READS Pinterest board.

STAY TUNED for PART 2 of this post: 2015 reads!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to subscribe to The Displaced Dispatch, a weekly round up of posts from The Displaced Nation, plus some extras such as seasonal recipes and occasional book giveaways. Sign up for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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LOCATION, LOCUTION: Author and part-time expat Susan Jane Gilman, who plunders her life for memoir and fiction

JJ Marsh Susan Jane GilmanWe welcome JJ Marsh back to the Displaced Nation for her first “location, locution” column of the new year, in which she talks to current authors about their methods for portraying place in their works.

My guest this month is the precocious and prolific Susan Jane Gilman. She is the author of three acclaimed nonfiction works:

  1. A travel memoir, Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven
  2. A memoir of her upbringing in New York City Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress, and
  3. An advice book, Kiss My Tiara.

And now she has a novel, a work of historical fiction called The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street, which came out in February of last year.

Gilman has also contributed to numerous anthologies, worked as journalist, and written for many well-known publications including the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Real Simple, and Us magazine. And she claims to have opened the Susan Jane Gilman Institute for Advanced Gelato Studies here in Geneva.

Oh, did I mention she is an expat?

Though made, born, and raised in New York City, and educated at Brown University and the University of Michigan (MFA in Creative Writing), Gilman currently divides her time between Switzerland and the United States.

Perhaps she developed her wanderlust through exposure to her high school English teacher (she went to Stuyvesant), the Pulitzer Prize-winning Irish-American memoirist Frank McCourt. In any event, she holds him accountable for her decision to become a writer.

Now let’s find out how Gilman perceives the connection between location and locution.

* * *

Which comes first, story or location?
Before I sit down to write, I need a sense of narrative, of a who-what-where, but so often, story and location are intertwined. Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, for example, is the true story of a disastrous backpacking trip I made through the People’s Republic of China in 1986. To separate the story from the place is simply impossible; so much of what made the trip horrific was the poverty and totalitarianism of China itself; I can’t imagine that my travel companion and I would have disintegrated in the same way at, say, the Canyon Ranch Spa or a luxury resort in the Maldives. Similarly, my novel, The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street, is a rags-to-riches-to-indictment story that begins with a child immigrating to the USA in 1913. New York City was simply the logical place to have it begin. It is not only my hometown but, of course, the great immigrant gateway to America.

location locution gilman

Lower East Side New York City @1910, credited to the Brown Brothers [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons; cover art.

What’s your technique for evoking the atmosphere of a place?
First, I usually describe vivid, visual details so that readers can see a place in their mind’s eye. Then I go for are the smells. Smell is the most evocative of all the senses. It brings a place to life more potently than anything else. Add sounds, and there you are. I’m afraid I’m sounding glib in the way that I’m saying this—”use all the senses”—it sounds easy, and it sounds like a recipe. But it’s not. I really struggle and strive to conjure a place, be it a roadside restaurant, a German city, an abandoned tenement, using incisive, significant details. I’m always on “cliche alert.”

Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?
Background noises, cooking smells, shadow and light, voices, architecture…there are no given particulars. I try to find what is most unique and evocative and go with it.

How well do you need to know the place before using it as a setting?
Saul Bellow wrote a whole novel set in Africa, apparently without having set foot once on the continent. I find this presumptuous. That said, I have written about places that I’ve only been in briefly, or glimpsed, or created out as a composites of other places I’ve been. But I like to have a feel for a place; I need to be able imagine it throughly, to exist in it. Often, if a character needs to be in a place that I’ve never been to, I research it as much as possible. The Internet is a godsend; I find old photographs or use Google Earth. I try to travel there in whatever way I can.

Can you give a brief example of your work which illustrates place?
I don’t have any of my books in front of me because I’m on the road, but read the very first paragraph of The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street and you’ll immediately find yourself on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1913. Read the first page of Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven and you’re on board a plane plummeting into Hong Kong; the next six pages take you right into downtown Kowloon at night, with all its lurid traffic, neon, and squalor. I’ve been told by readers that these sections have utterly transported them…

Gilman Kowloon Undress_medium

“Typical street scene in downtown Kowloon,” by VasenkaPhotography via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); cover art.

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?
I love the way Richard Ford conjures up the American West, John Cheever the Connecticut suburbs, Junot Díaz the Dominican community in New York City and Dominica. That said, I usually don’t admire writers so much as specific books, eg:

And, in a different way, I have always admired Anne Tyler for the way she conjures up so well these cosy, fraught, detailed middle class American households. She is stunning in her ability to make you see rooms, houses, offices—small, intimate tableaux—in such a rich way.

Locations need not be exotic or epic, just alive and relevant.

* * *

Readers, if this interview has piqued your curiosity about Susan Jane Gilman and her writings, I encourage you to visit her author site. You can also follow her on Twitter.

JJ Marsh grew up in Wales, Africa and the Middle East, where her curiosity for culture took root and triggered an urge to write. After living in Hong Kong, Nigeria, Dubai, Portugal and France, JJ finally settled in Switzerland, where she is currently halfway through her European crime series, set in compelling locations all over the continent and featuring detective inspector Beatrice Stubbs.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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3 anti-New Year’s resolutions for expat creatives, courtesy of the Lord of Misrule

LordofMisrule

“Lord of Misrule,” by _william via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

The start of a new year, and I’ve been struggling to think of just the right blessing, words of encouragement or meditation to inspire you (and myself for that matter) in the climb to reach new summits in your creative pursuits of 2015.

But here it is, the last day of Christmas, what some of us refer to as Three Kings Day or Epiphany—and I find myself with, well, no epiphanies.

Rather, my mind seems to have been taken over by the Lord of Misrule, a figure of mischief who presided over medieval celebrations of the 12th day of Christmas, or Twelfth Night—known to the Romans in pre-Christian times as Saturnalia (the Celts had their own version: Samhain).

* * *

Wait just a second… The Lord of Misrule is dragging me into the Feast of Fools and offering me a tankard of wassail. He has invited me to give a speech to the assembly. Well, here goes:

“Lords and ladies of the Feast, I am enjoying this occasion when we all have license to behave as fools.

In that spirit, I’d like you join with me in cursing—you heard it right, CURSING—my compatriot Clement Clarke Moore, who wrote a poem about St. Nicholas. I think it should have ended here:

And mamma in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled down for a long winter’s nap…

I ask you: Was it really necessary for St. Nick to bound down the chimney just as that poor couple was finally getting some rest?

In that same vein, let us also condemn whoever it was who invented the New Year’s custom of making resolutions!

Surely, what most of us want to do on January 1 is get back to that long winter’s nap and hibernate for a bit?

Where I live, we are now preparing for a second Arctic blast, even colder than the first.

Under these conditions, I would be doing well to get the dog out for a walk and myself to the office—especially as it has just started snowing. Indeed, the last thing I need at this point is one of those lists of 52 goals to accomplish in 2015.

I’ll be lucky if I can remember where I stored my old snow boots.”

* * *

Okay, here I am again. (They gave me a standing ovation, btw. If they ask for an encore, I’ll bring up my new campaign to refer to the Year of the Sheep as the Year of the Alpaca instead, so much cuter!)

But listen, I haven’t completely abrogated my duty of leaving you with some thoughts at the start of the 2015.

At the encouragement of my new best friend, the Lord of Misrule, I present 3 anti-New Year’s resolutions, which you’d do well to heed:

1) There’s nothing wrong with easing in to the new year.

Readers who follow us closely will remember that we recently posted an excerpt from a contribution made by Philippa Ramsden, a Scot who lives in Burma, to columnist Shannon Young’s Dragonfruit anthology. Philippa talks about finding out she has cancer as she reaches the Tropic of Cancer. Well, as her first post of the year to her blog, Feisty Blue Gecko, suggests, she plans not to lean in but to ease in to 2015. I see nothing wrong with that, particularly for those of us, myself included, who found 2014 difficult year because of health issues or losses in their families (not for everyone Facebook’s “Year in Review” app!). Easy, easy, one day at a time. Resolutions can wait.

2) Read what you want to, not what you have to, for a while.

To illustrate this point, allow me to spin a quick travel yarn. My husband and I spent Christmas-into-New Year’s in the arty little town of Hudson, New York, staying in this house with a Parisian-style mansard roof (who knew?):
Hudson_House
It was the kind of house that made you want to sit by the window with a good book, but for one problem: I forgot to pack my Kindle! At first I was in despair: what’s a poor Kindle-less girl to do? That was before I discovered that the Hudson Valley has a wealth of abandoned books. In nearby Greenport, I found a regency romance by Georgette Heyer (deliciously frothy) and J.B. Priestly’s novel Lost Empires, which, in telling the story of the early 20th-century English music hall, paints some extraordinarily vivid characters. Reading two books I’d encountered by chance, I was reminded of my grad student days, when I would read widely as a break from writing my thesis. I was also reminded of why I chose to live in England so long: I was, and remain, enamored of the way they write novels.

3) Be open to finding inspiration in the most unlikely of places.

In the era of social media, there are countless gurus who tell us how to write, offering writing prompts or daily inspiration—when the truth is, the best inspiration usually comes when you least expect it. To continue with my travel yarn: During our stay in Hudson, we decided to visit the Olana State Historic Site, the home of Frederic Church, one of the major figures in the Hudson River School of landscape painting. I went there thinking I would learn something more about this quintessentially American style of painting, only to find that Church was ONE OF US: an early example of an international creative! Yes, he was American and attached to the Hudson Valley, but he also traveled extensively through Europe and the Middle East—Beirut, Jerusalem, and Damascus—with his wife and children and, before marriage, had explored South America. Fittingly, the house he and his wife designed is a mash-up of Victorian, Persian and Moorish styles:

"Olana2006 3 edit1" by Rolf Müller - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Olana2006_3_edit1.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Olana2006_3_edit1.jpg

“Olana2006 3 edit1” by Rolf Müller – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

My goodness, I thought to myself, did they design this place anticipating it would one day be visited by displaced people like us?!

* * *

Okay, the Lord of Misrule is signaling that it’s time to get back to the old wassail bowl and sing a tune for the 12th-night crowd.

Here goes:

With a hey-ho and the snow and the wind,
May you build your own Olana in 2015,
But that’s all one, this post is done.

STAY TUNED for our next post!

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BOOKLUST, WANDERLUST: Curiosity leads Elizabeth Gilbert’s Victorian heroine to international travel

Booklust Wanderlust Collage

Left: Oleh Slobodeniuk (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0); right: Beth Green (her own photo).

Attention displaced bookworms! Our book review columnist, Beth Green, is back. An American who lives in Prague, Beth mixes booklust with wanderlust in equal measures, which gives her just the right background for reviewing book releases on behalf of international creatives.

—ML Awanohara

Hello again, Displaced Nationers! Since I last wrote, summer has slipped by us. The gradual wicking away of days and weeks puts me in mind of the protagonist of the book I have chosen to review this month: The Signature of All Things, a scientific and historical novel by Elizabeth Gilbert (she of Eat, Pray, Love fame).

The story’s heroine, Alma Whittaker, an early Victorian botanist living in North America, thinks of time as running on three concurrent tracks:
1) Human Time, which goes by as quickly and flittingly as a summer’s day.
2) Geological Time, in which the Earth moves.
3) Moss Time, which reflects the events of both Human and Geological time but moves at its own pace, expanding rapidly.

signature_coverAlma regrets that her life is stuck on the track of Human Time in an era that doesn’t favor women of character, intelligence and strength (but not looks). I found her fascinating and think that you international creatives will find her that way as well for these three reasons:

1) She is a Third Culture Kid and a polyglot.

As the daughter of English and Dutch botanists who eloped to start an empire on stolen seeds in the New World, Alma is a delightful fictional example of a Third Culture Kid. She has an unconventional upbringing at a time when most young ladies of her class were strictly bound by convention.

Gilbert writes:

She learned that walking carefully in the mud to save one’s boots or the hems of one’s skirts never rewarded one’s search. She was never scolded for returning home with muddied boots and hems.

At home, Alma speaks English with her British-born father, an old rascal who sailed with Captain Cook and turned himself into a rare plants and pharmaceuticals baron, one of the richest and most powerful men in Philadelphia; and a mix of classical languages with her highly educated mother. As for her nurse:

[The nurse] always spoke Dutch to Alma, and Dutch, to Alma’s ears would forever be the language of comfort and bank vaults and salted ham and safety.

Alma spends her childhood wandering in the breathtaking gardens and fields of her father’s estate, working on French and Latin, and being regaled with tales of far-flung expeditions at her parents’ dinner parties. She grows into a young woman with a wide breadth of knowledge but a constricted life experience.

2) Alma chooses to expand her horizons through international travel, rather like Gilbert herself.

Many novelists would slow down the narrative at this point, bring in a love interest (and a rival or two), and make the story all about the broadening of Alma’s horizons through a courtship followed by marriage. But Gilbert, who first made herself known to the world through the memoir of her solo travels to Italy (to eat), India (to pray) and Bali (where she found love), isn’t the right author for such conventions.

True, Alma’s youth, measured in Human Time, speeds by, but in the world Gilbert creates, one need not be young to have adventures. Indeed, Alma’s true adventures begin only after she believes she’s past her prime, when she enters Moss Time.

The spark that ignites those adventures is a surprise even to her. While contemplating the passage of her middle years, Alma discovers her passion for researching moss and its evolution. Moss, of course, knows no national boundaries. As Gilbert writes:

Moss grows where nothing else can grow. It grows on bricks. It grows on tree bark and roofing slate. It grows in the Arctic Circle and in the balmiest tropics; it also grows on the fur of sloths, on the backs of snails, on decaying human bones.

After Alma’s marriage fails, she sets sail for Tahiti.

As she takes off, so does the book—at least for me: Alma’s voyage across the Atlantic and Pacific was one of my favorite parts of the novel. Experiencing the long, slow sea voyage through the eyes of someone educated but who, at age 48, had barely left the confines of the family estate made for a compelling read.

“The ocean both stunned and disturbed her. Nothing had ever put more of an impression upon her being,” writes Gilbert. “It seemed to her the very distillation of matter, the very masterpiece of mysteries.”

There are also moments when her innocence clashes with her surroundings, as we see in this passage:

Alma offered payment in American coins, but the man attempted to make change for her from a handful of dirty Spanish piastres and Bolivian pesos. Alma could not figure out how he was possibly calculating his currency exchange, until she realized hew as trading in his dull old coins for her shiny new ones.

3) Alma’s insatiable curiosity is the driving force behind her travels.

It is tempting to see Alma as an extension of Gilbert: abandoning a marriage to travel recalls Gilbert’s break-out memoir Eat, Pray, Love. But in that book, along with its sequel Committed: A Love Story, Gilbert’s primary concern is with her ongoing personal evolution as writer, person, friend and romantic partner. In Signature, by contrast, Gilbert has created a character who as a young girl has already surpassed society’s expectations of what she can become. Alma is an intellectual whiz—fluent in languages, adept at math and strategy, precise in science and research—and a sensitive, caring friend. She’s strong. She’s healthy. But most of all, she’s curious—something I think she has in common with those of us who’ve chosen to live in other cultures.

When Alma reaches 16, she is faced with the decision to throw away a pornographic book or hide it. Gilbert writes:

But what about the cankerworm of curiosity that lived within Alma’s belly? What about its desire to feed daily upon the novel, the extraordinary, the true?

Then when Alma is approaching 60, she finally meets the special someone she has been searching for for years and says:

Allow me to tell you something about myself, for it might help you to speak more freely. Implanted in my very disposition—though I do not always consider it either a virtue or a blessing—is a desire to understand the nature of things.

Interestingly, curiosity seems to have become a mantra for Gilbert these days. On recent speaking tours (with Oprah, for example), she has been offering writers this advice:

Foster your curiosity even more than your passion.

To sum up: The Signature of All Things is not always a page-turner and Alma is not always a likable character, but the book held my attention to the end, in large part because I wanted to find out what happened to Alma. Gilbert’s writing, too, is impressive. Certain scenes in the book—the docks and a moss cave in Tahiti, the Spartan kitchen Alma’s abolitionist sister keeps, the crude sea tales of Alma’s father—are portrayed with such cinematic clarity I will never forget them.

Those who have read the book may know that readers have criticized Gilbert for focusing too much attention on Alma’s (mostly unfulfilled) sexual desires. I did not feel that way. Through the force of her sheer intelligence, Alma takes us closer to a period of our history that wasn’t so long ago, at least in Geological Time, when scientific findings were beginning to challenge traditional beliefs. As the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes once said:

Curiosity is the lust of the mind.

What say you, Displaced Nationers? Are you curious about Gilbert’s latest? Until we meet again, may Human Time roll by slowly for a change. (And if it doesn’t, plant some moss on it!)

* * *

Thanks, Beth! Until I read this review, I hadn’t realized that Elizabeth Gilbert, a member of our Displaced Hall of Fame for her travel memoir, had moved on to fiction. Readers, are you familiar with Signature and Alma Whittaker? If so, were you just as smitten as Beth was?

Beth Green is an American writer and English teacher living in Prague, Czech Republic. She grew up on a sailboat and, though now a landlubber, continues to lead a peripatetic life, having lived in Asia as well as Europe. Her personal Web site is Beth Green Writes, and she is about to launch a new site called Everyday Travel Stories. To keep in touch with her in between columns, try following her on Facebook and Twitter. She’s a social media nut!

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