My time in Thailand and Laos has flown by! Traveling for 30 days—including ten days on the beach and two and a half weeks of traveling solo—has given me a welcome, luxurious amount of time for reading and reflection.
I tend to read multiple books at a time, mixing fiction and non-fiction, and my choices might seem a little all over the map (no pun intended!). But I think I can see some themes—food, culture, wanderlust. Here’s the list and my verdicts:
Eating Viet Nam: Dispatches from a Blue Plastic Table by Graham Holliday
Ok, technically I started reading this one pre-trip, since I thought it would be a great intro to Vietnamese food before going. Holliday is a food blogger based in Vietnam and his writing is upbeat and honest. His descriptions of the street food and people who make it are fascinating, that is, at first, but my attention waned about two thirds of the way through and I haven’t finished the book yet. His descriptions of the grime and dirt in Vietnam have also made me feel a bit apprehensive about eating on the street there. Not for the faint of heart, I guess! Looking forward to checking it out for myself.
Verdict: recommended if you really like reading about food
Yoga School Dropout by Lucy Edge
I was hoping that this would be an inspiring female-solo-traveler story in the vein of Wild or my favorite bloggers… alas, it tends to follow more of the navel-gazing tendencies epitomized in Eat, Pray, Love. I didn’t finish Eat, Pray, Love and I couldn't finish this one. After making it halfway through, I grew weary of Edge’s fruitless wandering from one yoga school to another, seemingly focusing more on finding a cute guy than she does on finding inner peace. Sorry Lucy, I hope you found happiness in the end but I just couldn’t stick with you during your journey.
Verdict: pass, unless you really liked Eat, Pray, Love, in which case you’ll probably like it
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larsson
I think this one breaks the travel/culture/wanderlust theme, but I’m including it for the sake of completion. After a surprisingly slow start, I couldn’t put it down, but I felt queasy from reading about the crimes committed. I won’t say more—you probably already know what happens as I think I'm the last person on the planet to have read this book (or at least seen the movie).
Verdict: page turner if you don’t mind reading about (or skimming over) quite a few horrifyingly sadistic acts
A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf
I somehow never read this in high school or university despite having an interest in feminist literature. It takes a bit of effort, but after making it through, I think it should be required reading (at least chapter 3!) for everyone, women and men alike. Woolf gives a razor-sharp summary of the history of women writers, and women in general, and why women found it impossible to become writers and artists until just a few centuries ago. She argues that women have traditionally lacked space (both mental and physical) and time to develop their gifts. Woolf has some truly wonderful sentences in here that about patriarchal society that, unfortunately, still ring true today.
On the other hand, her hope that “100 years in the future” women will have the time, money, and freedom to think, read, daydream, travel—in short, to pursue their own desires, hits me over the head. I am doing that right now; I am living in Woolf’s idealistic world, and I am grateful for it.
I can't help but think about women in Laos, struggling just to get by, sometimes not even finishing high school, still getting married at 13 years old, as I learned while talking to some Lao teenagers. As a western woman from a middle-class background, I don’t need to tell you that I’m privileged—spoiled, really—in a way that women here can only dream about. It’s so easy to take this privilege for granted.
Verdict: must-read, worth the effort
The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George
Rather than the mindless yet charming read I was expecting, this novel was surprisingly thought-provoking, especially its passages about loss, love, and grief. Some parts are a bit flowery for me, some unrealistic, but the emotions rang true and I was moved to tears a few times. In the end, it's a traditional hero’s journey tale. The protagonist, a charming and insightful bookshop owner, must travel around France in order to find out what sort of man he wants to be and learn how to live freely and open himself to others. Would it be too cheesy to say that I am on such a journey of my own?
Verdict: loved it
A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson
Atkinson’s Life After Life continues to haunt me, so I had to read this book, which features a few of the same characters. Somehow A God in Ruins feels as though it shares a theme with my trip through Laos, as the main character, Teddy, recounts his experiences as a flight bomber during World War II. While I’m learning about the American bombings of Laos, his tales from the the bomber's perspective, and Atkinson's musings on the senselessness of war/life/death are moving. I keep going between this one and The Universe Unraveling (below), and it’s an interesting contrast. A God in Ruins is a bit slow at times; however, Atkinson’s style and insight into human thoughts make it worthwhile. I haven't finished yet but I intend to.
Verdict: only halfway through; will have to wait and see
The Universe Unraveling: American Foreign Policy in Cold War Laos by Seth Jacobs
After arriving in Laos and hearing about the bombs dropped on this country by the Americans in the 1960s, I wanted to learn more. This seemed to be one of the better, most neutral books I could find on Kindle. I’m only 15% of the way through, but so far, it’s packed full of facts and seems to be informative and fair. I think it will take me a while to finish (if I do), but I’m happy to learn what I can about Laos' history.
Verdict: too soon to say
Any recommendations for books I should read while traveling? My next stop is Vietnam. Beach reads, historical tomes, and foodie lit are all welcome!