Even from the nook of your big comfy couch, you can still feel like you’re a hundred or a thousand kilometres away. Some of my favourite books are ones that aren’t necessarily travel books, but ones that are set in countries and cities and cultures far removed from my own. That kind of immersion is, to me, invaluable, because even when I can’t travel somewhere, I can still be transported there. Additionally, by reading more into different places and cultures, I usually feel more compelled to visit.
Three of my favourite books are below, which have further reinforced my desire to venture to Japan, instilled an immense amount of respect for Chile, and given me a fascinating insight into Vietnam.
Hokkaido Highway Blues by Will Ferguson
Notoriously self-depricating, Will Ferguson’s humour has traditionally emerged through writings on his (and my) home country of Canada. His work includes Beauty Tips From Moose Jaw, How To Be A Canadian (slyly purchased by myself for my expat British boyfriend upon his arrival to this vast snowy land of crazy), and, naturally, Why I Hate Canadians.
Hokkaido Highway Blues is one of Ferguson’s forays into international writing, chronicling his hitchhiking adventure through Japan. Working as a teacher for a few years in the country that hovers near the top of my travel list, Ferguson made the ambitious goal of traversing the country from south to north to follow the run of the cherry blossoms, an annual phenomenon that captivates the country and dominates conversation for an entire season. Along the way he encounters a mish-mash of characters and entertainers, dead-set on calling him American and dissecting the Japanese psyche. He gets fall-down drunk a lot, gives a surprising insight into a particular niche of “love”ly hotels, and illustrates a completely contradictory, yet fascinating cross-section of a race of utterly intriguing people. Oh, and the book is very funny. To anyone who has visited, plans on visiting, lived in, or is just mildly curious about Japan, this will entertain you for hundreds of pages.
My Invented Country by Isabel Allende
Best known for House of Spirits, Portrait in Sepia, and Daughter of Fortune, Isabel Allende is a well-known Chilean writer whose stories typically include elements of magical realism. In My Invented Country, Allende retraces her roots in Chile, a country where she never truly felt as though she fit in, yet considers it home.
Born in Peru, and residing in America since the 1970s, a series of triggers prompted Allende to return to Chile on a nostalgic journey to better understand how her memories have shaped her life, and to differentiate between memory and reality. I loved this book because of its unique portrayal of Chile, and from the honest and humourous self-reflection by Allende. It’s a particular type of travel book that is somewhat uncommon, yet familiar all at once. Don’t we all wish for a little nostalgia every so often?
The Beauty of Humanity Movement by Camilla Gibb
Set in modern-day Vietnam, the Beauty of Humanity Movement is a truly wonderful story of the meaning of family, loyalty, love, dedication, and humanity. Central to the story is Old Man Hung, a pho seller of Hanoi who frequently reflects back on life under “Uncle Ho”, Ho Chi Minh. Two of his loyal customers, Binh and Tu are a father and son, the latter of whom is a member of this new, young, modern, Westernised generation who are somewhat disconnected to Vietnam’s past. Finally Maggie is a young Vietnamese-American art curator returned to Hanoi to trace her father, an artist who disappeared somewhere along the ‘re-education’ process.
The novel, although fictional, is woven with real sentiment towards past and modern life in Vietnam, throughout the generations. I was fascinated by the cultural intricacies of the Vietnamese people, and felt more compelled to understand and visit the country. From the delicate balance of making the perfect pho to the ideological battles over beauty, humanity, creativity, and expression, The Beauty of Humanity Movement was an enriching read and a fantastic literary immersion into life in modern-day Hanoi.