Books that Transport You Elsewhere

Art by Michelle Cheung for Novella Magazine

While thinking of a list of books that “transport you”, I could not help but think about Orientalism and its saccharine promises made to and made by people, much like myself but in different times, snugly sitting with fat cushions in a drawing room (or studio) with AC gently humming (a modern addition). Would the likes of Délacroix or Kipling be proud to know that I also could not help but come up with titles that have, indeed, made me think, albeit only momentarily, that I was somewhere I was not, that I knew things of the place that I could not possibly know. It’s not an unfamiliar feeling, to hold contradictory views with equal enthusiasm and doubt — while Orientalism, or a variant of it, is morally appalling and actually devastating, books can pull a fast one over anyone and I savor its power over me.

We could talk about the possible reconciliation of these views for hours on end, but the list, which was compiled after all, must be presented. But I think I am safe in saying that the books below, picked by our contributors Snigdha and Adina and yours truly, by no means claim to be authoritative documents of a place or time or people. They are the author’s views or perspectives; and in these books, they did an awfully good job at fooling us. (But I am writing this slightly prematurely as one of them has not yet given me their picks/reasons — if it turns out I’m wrong, poo-tee-weet.) So if you are feeling a bit tied down to the glum and monotony of Toronto and would like to see other parts of the world in the comfort of your AC, pick up one of these. — Hoon.

Hoon, Managing Editor

Slow Days, Fast Company: the World, the Flesh, and L.A. by Eve Babitz

Once, Eve Babitz played chess with Marcel Duchamp. Naked. It was photographed and Babitz’s wit, along with the photo, gained notoriety. In Slow Days, Fast Company, Babitz takes us through Los Angeles. The L.A. of the L.A. socialites. Some of the best parts of the book are descriptions of what she (or the narrator) ate and drank with who’s who at where’s where (copyright to where’s where pending). In this book, you can also learn to hate San Fransisco with L.A. smugness and imagine that you’re doing so on your way home from LAX.

Clear Light of Day by Anita Desai

The first of four sections of Anita Desai’s Clear Light of Day is set in post-Partition Old Delhi. Desai’s descriptions of the world around the Das family’s old house are so vivid that you can almost feel the walls around the house, its tree lines and wilting rose path. As the book travels back in time to Partition and pre-Partition times, alongside the Das’s family drama, we get glimpses of a country and family in crisis.

South and West by Joan Didion

One of the things Joan Didion does best is hide herself behind her words and sentences — her descriptions are authoritative, as though they were the sole truth to the incidents and objects they depict. South and West. From a Notebook. is definitely not Didion’s best or the most representative (my vote for the former category goes to After Henry), but it gives us intimate glimpses of the way she traveled around the Southern states of America. Rattlesnakes, the rain and mud, and the dilapidating effects of the road all come to life.

Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje

Michael Ondaatje takes us to Sri Lanka through his personal and family history. Running in the Family is, at its best, like a family dinner — it’s utterly unremarkable and ordinary yet it shapes the way you eat. Or, in this case, the way Ondaatje thinks about the island. It’s almost a shame that I’ve not been to Sri Lanka prior to reading Ondaatje, since until I do, it will be tinted with his sentences and poems. Ondaatje is also full of stories, action, and shameful and tell-tale family histories that take place in — sometimes it feels as though the place predicated the histories and actions — the mountains and tumultuous weather of the island.

Adina, Contributor

Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami

I adore Haruki Murakami; his dreamy surrealist style, his intriguing characters, the way he layers stories within each other. When Sputnik Sweetheart begins, our narrator, K, (like most of Murakami’s narrators) is an ordinary 20-something man living in a small town in Japan, helplessly in love with his best friend Sumire. However, the story takes a turn for the unique when Sumire is swept up in a love affair with an older Korean businesswoman named Miu, who whisks her away to an exotic island in Greece, where she disappears. I don’t want to spoil the ending, but I will say that as K reckons with his own loneliness and unrequited love, he considers the beautiful, empty island around him, full of life but lacking many people.

Dawn by Octavia E. Butler

If you don’t have to worry about money or time away from work when you’re only reading about traveling, why bother even staying on Earth? Why not travel with our narrator, Lillith, to an enormous, planet-like spaceship populated by a mysteriously benevolent alien race called the Oankali, who have chosen to rescue several thousand humans from a destruction on Earth. Butler is one of the finest science fiction writers out there, and she puts us right in the middle of the ship, its forest-like biome areas, the slippery aliens, and the stark, chrome rooms where the humans are kept, mostly. Butler alternates between fantastic wonder and frightful claustrophobia, and it works marvelously.

Snigdha, Contributor

The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai

Kiran Desai transports us to three different places in this novel, from the Indian hill-station town of Kalimpong in the northeastern Himalayas to the rainy university town of Cambridge to New York City’s grimy restaurant kitchens. Shifting from the past to the present (the present being 1986, with the rise of violence within the Gorkhaland movement in India), the novel follows Sai, her grandfather Jemubhai, their cook, and his son Biju. Desai’s language appeals to all five senses, from describing how people look to how food tastes and to how the air smells — the words lift right off the pages, pull us into the novel, and have us stand in the midst of the love, the chaos, the excitement, and (as the title suggests) the loss Desai writes about.

Sphinx by Anne Garréta

Anne Garréta, one of the few female members of Oulipo (a distinguished experimental literary group in France), writes a genderless love story set in Paris. Indeed, it is a novel celebrated for its feminist inquiries and investigations, its reflections on love and loss and identity. But in addition to that, Garréta’s novel does a remarkable job of writing about the sounds of after hours Paris: bars, clubs, people — their voices, their dance moves, their bodies — all threaded together with the music of the night. The language is poetic. It is palpable. And even as I closed the covers and placed the novel on my bookshelf, I could still feel the city’s rhythm.

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Novel Idea: In a Free State by V. S. Naipaul

V. S. Naipaul’s In a Free Statepublished in 1971, is composed of two short stories and a novella, rounded out by a framing narrative of a man’s trip to Egypt. It begins with the prologue, ‘The Tramp at Piraeus,’ wherein an English tramp is bullied by two Lebanese businessmen and an Austrian on a ship from Greece. It continues with Santosh, an Indian servant in Washington D.C. in ‘One out of Many,’ and a West Indian in London in ‘Tell Me Who to Kill. A gay English bureaucrat, Bobby, and an English ‘compound wife,’ Linda, go on a road trip from the capital to a compound in an unnamed, recently liberated African country in the throes of revolution and civil-war in ‘In a Free State’. In the epilogue, ‘The Circus at Luxor,’ the narrator of the prologue is once again in Egypt and goes sightseeing. Far away from home, these exiles and expatriates feel the full weight of dislocation, of postcolonial homelessness; the world turned as murky and troubled as the water left behind by a ship leaving harbor, carrying diasporas.

There’s much to admire in In a Free State. It is well known that Naipaul is a master of the English language and the book, especially the framing narratives and the descriptions in ‘In a Free State’attest to it (though at points in ‘Tell Me Who to Kill’ the West Indian’s mastery of the language fluctuates). The descriptions of the road and the scenery in the latter point to the inescapable reality of the landscape that exists side by side yet beyond the abstractions of politics, the rhetoric, the war, and Bobby and Linda’s colonial identity crisis. Meanwhile, at petrol stations, at crumbling resort towns, at police check points, violence abounds — and everyone partakes in its abundance.

The observational quality of the prose and, perhaps, even Naipaul’s stance on issues central to the world he portrays, make liberal — and the cultural stances commonly associated with it — distaste toward the book easy: Naipaul writes, as Conrad did, of the natives as one who observes from the outside, detached, and ultimately disinterested in the life and history of the people being described. However, as Joan Didion points out in her essay regarding Naipaul’s The Return of Eva Perón with The Killings in Trinidad in the New York Review of Books, the history and social makeup of the land, the processes in which one group colonized and benefited from the land, are not the focal points of the narrative. Naipaul’s focus is on the experience the land offers. And it is a violent land, an unkind land, much of it opaque to even those who propose to understand it and wish for its success. In ‘In a Free State,’ the president of the African country and his tribesmen slowly move down a highway, burning villages belonging to the opposing tribe; on similar roads elsewhere in the same country, white colonists move South towards South Africa.

In the context of postcolonial thought, dislocation, a sense of homelessness, is a condition not limited to the aspiring colonized in the West, but is also felt by the colonist in the colonized land. The archetypal colored student in the Western metropolis — the likes of the unnamed narrator in Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North or Shakespeare’s Taliban in the Tempest — share with the archetypal colonist in the colonies — Kipling’s or many Conradian narrators — the capacity for an outsider’s perspective; new languages, new landscapes, new foods, new temperatures alter their native ones. Returning home, the student finds himself disconnected; the colonist, comfortable in his new settler identity, is reluctant to leave, to yield to decolonization, disintegration. They are torn between the two worlds. And it is this common ground between the colonized and the colonist that links the disparate characters of the book together.

Naipaul, born in Trinidad — a land originally developed as a plantation colony, belonging neither to the Caribbean nor South America — of Indian heritage in 1932, educated in Oxford in the ’50s, curiously embodies the seemingly irreconcilable identities of the colonized and the colonist. The man who survived a racist London and wrote extensively and sympathetically on postcolonial issues, is also the man often derided and torn apart in literary circles as the ‘backwards’ voice who’s written derisively about the ‘primitive’ and ‘barbaric’ ways of tribes in Africa. The man behind the celebrated novel, A House for Mr. Biswas, is also the very same well-known for his disdain towards his native island. Naipaul grew up poor, struggled, and, once at Oxford then at London, struggled further. He won the Booker Prize in 1971, was knighted in 1990, and won the Nobel in 2001. He is no doubt a complicated man, whose identities, let alone views, are not always entirely whole.

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Novel Idea: Elizabeth Hardwick’s Seduction and Betrayal

Darryl Pinckney and Elizabeth Hardwick, photo by Dominique Nabokov

In her 1985 interview with the Paris Review, Elizabeth Hardwick said, “In general I’d rather talk about other people. Gossip, or as we gossips like to say, character analysis.” Gossip and analyze character she does in her 1974 book of essays, Seduction and Betrayal with acuity, humor, and intellect one often does not find in everyday gossip. As Joan Didion points out in her introduction to the NYRB 2001 reprint of the essays, Hardwick seems to have seen no distinction between ‘the real and the literary’ and understood “that the women we invent have changed the course of our lives as surely as the women we are.” Hardwick’s essays on the Brontë Sisters, Sylvia Plath, or Zelda Fitzgerald are as much analysis of their works as explorations of writing as an act of transgression and actualization; they are, it becomes clear, characters in a broader history of women in literature as female characters in literature — Nora and Hedda of Ibsen, for instance — are reflections of women in history.

Hardwick writes of of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, “We may very well predict that [Nora] will soon be laughing and chattering again and eating her macaroons in peace, telling her friends – she is going back to her hometown — what a stick Helmer turned out to be. Otherwise her freedom is worth nothing.” She gives us not only an analysis of Nora as a character on stage, but what Nora is as a dramatized but recognizable extension of reality. Hardwick continues: “Nora’s liberation is not a transformation, but an acknowledgment of error, of having married the man. Her real problem is money — at the beginning and at the end. What will she live on? What kind of work will she do? Will she get her children back? Will she get a new husband? When the curtain goes down it is only the end of Volume One.” Through Hardwick, our concerns as readers of Ibsen are extended beyond the drama.

I can’t quite imagine, when thinking of a cliché image of gossips, Elizabeth Hardwick’s acutely original voice discussing suicide as performance in Plath’s poems; for this, I have in mind the Greek chorus. But I like to imagine how natural and, to a degree, fun it must have been for her to discuss such matters over, say, a light lunch in her Upper West Side apartment. Perhaps the facts that she was, with Robert Lowell and the late Bob Silvers, one of the founders of the esteemed New York Review of Books, was friends with Mary McCarthy, and was acquainted with Billie Holiday influence the way I read and review her essays.

But it is less my admiration for the author of Sleepless Nights and more for the quick and revealing sentences that carry her judgments and ideas — such as, “[Plath’s] fate and her themes are hardly separate and both are singularly terrible” — that make the essays stand out as examples of creative, original, and truly revelatory literary criticism.

Hardwick once wrote in her famous 1959 essay, “The Decline of Book Reviewing”, published in Harper’s, “The flat praise and the faint dissension, the minimal style and the light little article, the absence of involvement, passion, character, eccentricity — the lack, at last, of the literary tone itself — have made the New York Times into a provincial literary journal, longer and thicker, but not much different in the end from all those small-town Sunday ‘Book Pages.'” In Seduction and Betrayal, it’s easy to see what Hardwick meant by involvement, passion, character, and eccentricity; she has them all and more to offer her readers. Her scathing review of the Times is humorous but also frightening to one such as myself daring to add on to the conversation. All reviewers — or at least all that one should care to read — should fear adding on to ‘a puddle of treacle’ faced with Hardwick’s work. But good thing she also showed us what to aim for.

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