Greetings from the island of Taiwan, which in the last few months, has gone from balmy in temperature to downright tropical! What is there to do, then, when the days get exceedingly hot and more humid, but to go inside, crank up the A/C, and read a good book? (Note: going to our local outdoor pool and taking a nice long swim also helps.)
As classes and events at Zheng Da have ended for the year, and my research has evolved– turning south to Silai (Siluo/Xiluo/西螺) and to interviewing important historians and figures in the history I’m writing about–my daily routine has changed drastically. Sometimes I spend the days interviewing people, traveling, reading research that I’ve gathered, or just writing. I’ve also spent more and more time reading– both for research, and for pleasure. And I’ve found some books that really resonate with the “expat experience,” and with my expat experience.
So here is the guide to Kim’s Expat Reading List from the last 10 months, with books grouped by category, or perhaps more accurately, “mood” to read in. Please feel free to comment, critique the choices, and/or add your own favorites:
Best Books When You Want to Read About Other Sympathetic Westerners Traveling in East Asia:
If You Follow Me, by Malena Watrous- So this was the first book I read in Taiwan– actually, I read it on the airplane TO Asia, and in my first few days in Taipei. It’s about an American woman teaching English in rural Japan, and her many hilarious, awkward, and poignant misadventures– and coincidentally enough, was recommended by my Stepmom, and then I realized that it was written by my former Creative Writing teacher at Stanford! That’s not why I like it though, and don’t take my word for it– read it yourself!
Factory Girls, by Leslie Chang- When my friends here and back home heard about the family-history-search side of my project in Taiwan, many of them asked, “Have you read Factory Girls yet??” so I had to read it. And while Chang’s amazingly well-researched and compelling story focuses on rural women migrant workers in China’s urban factory centers, it also details Chang’s own search for her family’s history in rural China– bringing her back to her ancestral home, grandfather’s unmarked grave, and through her family’s spotty records. It’s an interesting mash-up of two not-very-related story lines, but each one is highly compelling. If I was jarred by Chang’s switch from reportage to personal narrative, it may have been because the subject matter was almost too familiar.
Falling Through the Earth, by Danielle Trussoni- An elegant yet visceral family memoir of Trussoni’s father’s stint in Vietnam as a tunnel rat (on the American side during the Vietnam War), which includes the author’s own trip to Vietnam to see her father’s ghosts come to life… in person. After reading this memoir, I actually had no desire to see the tunnels outside of Ho Chi Minh City in December, saying to my friends, “I feel like I’ve already seen them,” with a faint shiver.
River Town, by Peter Hessler- Before the recent deluge of “This is How China Really Is Now” books, Peter Hessler went to Fuling, a small city in Sichuan province on the Yangtze River, for two years. His memoir of cultural exchange, awkwardness, language learning, and attempts to live a normal life as one of the only two waiguoren in Fuling resonates with poetic detail and insightful observations about life in China at the end of the twentieth century.
(For more books about Asia by Asian authors, check out Waiting by Ha Jin, Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami, The Corpse Walker by Liao Yiwu, The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, and many many others.)
Best Books When You’re Feeling Philosophically Bereft, Lost, or Down-Trodden By Unfamiliarity:
The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera- This is one of my favorite books for when I’m feeling philosophically bereft, anytime, anywhere. But reading Kundera when I’m living in a foreign place drives home his descriptions of the Czech emigrant experience all the more. Best time I’ve ever had on an overnight train from Hualian to Taipei with fluorescent lights and constant station announcements preventing me from sleeping at 4am, ever.
Siddhartha, by Herman Hesse- My best friend from high school has been exhorting me to read this book for probably about the last 8-9 years. At first he was ADAMANT about it, then merely enthusiastic, then mildly persistent. When I finally called him in November to tell him that I’d read it and it changed my life he said, “What? I thought you’d already read it. It’s good, right?” Exactly.
Sonnets to Orpheus, by Rainer Maria Rilke- In our first two months in Taiwan, my friend Sam could not stop quoting Auden or making references to Rilke. (He is obviously far more cultured than me.) So when I got my Zheng Da college library card, I promptly borrowed “Sonnets” and got in on the Rilke high. See this past post here for my favorite Sonnet.
Best Books to Read When You’re Missing Western (or European) FOOD, and/or culture:
Heat, by Bill Buford- Best description of making spaghetti in some kind of clam sauce. EVER. I began this book when I was coming back from Tainan with a wretched stomach flu, and the mere suggestion of soy sauce was enough to nauseate me. Arriving home, I retreated into my bed for 2 days with medicine, crackers, and Buford, and it was just what the doctor ordered.
My Life in France, by Julia Child- Best description of making sole meunière, or, um, almost anything in a kitchen, ever. Also, Julia is so clever and witty and full of love for France and for the world. I recommend it over the much-publicized Julie and Julia, which I have also read, albeit in America.
French Lessons, by Alice Kaplan- A gift from my college roommate and wonderful Taiwanese friend Eva, French Lessons is a book about how one girl became enamored with another culture, language, and way of living and speaking and reading. I read it early on in my time in Taiwan, having lovely nostalgia for my former expat experience in Paris over 3 months, and hopeful that my time in Taiwan would be equally wonderful and fruitful. Of course, back then, I had no idea what fun and struggles were in store for me!
Comfort Reading For When You’re Feeling Sentimental About New York City:
Breakfast At Tiffany’s, by Truman Capote- It is not better nor worse than the Audrey Hepburn movie, but it is different. The feeling of wistfulness in this book is unparalleled by almost anything else I’ve ever read that’s set in New York. Also, you can read it in an evening.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith- This classic is particularly poignant for me because my father sees his experience growing up in Brooklyn as so similar, or even analogous, to Francie’s. It’s also a great view of one city’s history seen through the lens of fiction.
The New York Trilogy, by Paul Auster- I didn’t actually read this book in Taiwan, but it was the book I read in Paris that reminded me of how important it can be to READ BOOKS IN ENGLISH, even when you’re trying to learn a new language and immerse yourself in a foreign culture. For me, literature is nourishment, and postmodern slightly-absurd novels about New York City are like the Power Bars of literary nourishment for me. I know, I’m such a geek.
Really Well-Written Books that Seem EVEN BETTER when you re-read them in Taiwan, After Not Reading Much English Lately:
The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald- The language is so languid, so overblown, that it’s just a wonderful dose of extravagant English. Also, I don’t remember laughing so hard the last time I read this, at age 20, when I was an over-serious literature major trying to write a meaningful paper about it for class. Now I find the book utterly hilarious, chock full of wry humor. Ahhh, I seem to be aging.
The Hours, by Michael Cunningham- Where Gatsby is decadent, The Hours is spare, but elegant, and heartbreaking. It’s such a beautiful book.
Mountains Beyond Mountains, by Tracy Kidder- Everyone who thinks “Creative Nonfiction” is either boring, journalism, a craft not an art, for literary hacks, not really serious literature, or any other derogatory slur should read this book. Everyone else should read it too. Not only is the content important, but the writing is subtle, elegant, and masterful. Kidder is my nonfiction God.
I am finishing up River Town now, and thanks to the awesome NT$99 sale on books in English at Page One going on right now (the English language bookstore in Taipei 101 Mall), next on my list are the following books:
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, by Dai Sijie
The Lazarus Project, by Aleksandar Hemon
Chronic City, by Jonathan Lethem
Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf
and possibly, Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace. Because if I don’t have time to read it here, then when and where will I??? Also, I don’t want to carry that enormous book all the way to Taiwan and back without cracking it open.
Any other recommendations?? Especially for books that speak to the expat and/or family history-reconstructing, identity-searching, brutal repressed political history uncovering experiences?
Stay tuned for the follow-up post, Best Poems I’ve Read While Living Abroad This Year.