JAPAN: ‘A Daughter Of The Samurai’ by Etsu Inagaki Sugimoto (Tuttle) This memoir describes the intricate traditions and culture of the Japanese Samurai world. The isolation of Japan from the rest of the world for long periods of time developed a fascinating and individual culture. Starting with Sugimotos’ beautiful traditional childhood in Nagaoka, Japan, she describes the festivals, tradition of kiminos and its knots and folds, the language of bowing, traditional ceremonies and the role of the family council. As a young bride, she had to respect the flower on her husband’s coat of arms to the extent that she could not eat plums. We follow as she moves to Tokyo as a new bride, and experiences different values and ideas from her rural childhood. There, she has her first experiences of westerners where ‘pipe-shaped sleeves’ were described by her relations as ‘lacking grace’ and the ‘bigness of everything; everything seemed made for a race of giants’. This book captures the beauty and grace of traditional Japan based on discipline and respect which is quite awe-inspiring. Thank you to my friend, Suz, who suggested and then generously gave me this beautiful book.
CHINA: ‘Lions’ Head, Four Happiness; A Little Sister’s Story of Growing Up In China’ by Xiaomei Martell (Vintage; Random House) The youngest of four daughters, this book is the story of Martell’s childhood in rural Communist China and the importance of food in her life; the scarcity of it, what the usual meals were and foods for special occasions and treats. The usual greeting in her childhood was ‘chilema’ meaning ‘Have you eaten?’ showing the value of food, sharing meals and a full stomach. Her incorporation of food stories are fascinating and give a real indication of the lifestyle and culture of the time. The title of the book, Lion’s Head and Four Happiness, were two of Martell’s special meals and we learn why these meals and treasured childhood toys such as painted pig toes were so such an important part of her culture. We follow Martell’s lifestyle as a young child, the few opportunities she was given and how she seized upon them and realised her dream.
GREECE: ‘My Family and Other Animals’ by Gerald Durrell (Penguin) This book is the very funny memoir of the author’s childhood when his eccentric mother moves with her four children to Corfu, Greece after the death of their father. Gerald is the youngest of the children by quite a few years and we see his family through the lively and hilarious conversations they have with each other; the local larger-than-life taxi-driving Spiro who takes them under his wing, the Durrells’ house guests and insects and animals Gerald collects and keeps in secret in the house. I definitely laughed out loud many times whilst reading this book. I was introduced to this book when I was in my first year of high school and I was fortunate to have a wonderful English teacher who read parts of the book out in her fantastic uninhibited style. I have re-read this book twice since then and each time I can hear my teacher’s vivacious voice as she brought each character with their idiosyncrasies and whimsies vividly to life. Durrell’s descriptive writing means you can just about hear the cicadas with the ear-piercing screeches and see the sparkle on the azure-blue water. Beautiful descriptions of a fascinatingly langid way of life in an idyllic setting. Thank you to my Year 7 English teacher, Mrs Mitchell, who introduced me to this book. The sequel, ‘Birds, Beasts and Relatives’ by Gerald Durrell (Penguin) is equally as funny and enjoyable.
USA: ‘Tales Of New York; Some Will Surprise You’ by John Keatts (Legwork Team Publishing) My brother, who has lived in New York, insisted that one of things you really need to do when visiting New York was to take a ferry tour of The Statue of Liberty. Despite freezing temperatures and a long queue, my family and I persisted and went on a tour. We were fortunate to have a brilliant licensed tour guide, John Keatts, who had an engaging style and great sense of humour which really brought the tour alive. At the end of the tour he happened to mention that he had written a book and, having so enjoyed his tour, I went up and asked to buy a copy. The book covers the history of New York, stories about immigrants, The Statue of Liberty, the buildings and how their height depends on the rock they sit on, the skyscraper race, how the various areas of New York were established, the concept and of Central Park, The United Nations and the Gotham city ideas with many anecdotes such as how police were called cops because of their copper badges, why there are so many people named Tony in New York and the use of the term ‘The Big Apple’. You get a real sense of how the mix of immigrants, the geography of the island and the personalities which made New York what it is. This book is a celebration of New York itself. What an asset Keatts is to New York!
Visit John Keatts’ website here.
Read my interview with John Keatts here.
TANZANIA: ‘St Jude’s’ by Gemma Sisia (Macmillan) I loved reading about Sisia’s travels and how she unexpectedly fell in love with Tanzania and it’s culture. Sisia grew up in Guyra in northern NSW, Australia and enjoyed a country childhood before travelling to South Africa. The book follows her inspiring story of how she built a school named ‘The School of St. Jude’ (St. Jude is the patron saint of hopeless causes) and how she raised the funds entirely from sponsors. An opportunity for bright children in poor areas, the school addresses inadequate education and illiteracy. We follow the school as it develops to accommodate 700 children, the building of new facilities and the successful academic records. As Sisia settles in Tanzania and marries a local man, then raises their children, we travel with her on her journey of discovery of the Tanzanian and Maasai cultures, their love of the land and family structures. Sisia describes with respect the traditions, culture and surprises she encountered. This book is a very inspiring read about one person helping to change the world.
Read my interview with Gemma Sisia here.
FRANCE: ‘The Piano Shop On The Left Bank; The Hidden World Of A Paris Atelier’ by T.E.Carhart (Vintage; Random House) I first read this memoir when my youngest child was just born. I read it again recently and remembered why I loved it so much. The descriptive passages of the back streets of Parisian life where the piano shop is situated are so atmospheric and beautiful that you are absorbed into the culture. Cleverly, we are introduced to the charms of Paris by the various real people that Carhart meets in a piano shop; owners, other customers, restorers, piano tuners, piano removalists and piano teachers. We learn of Parisian customs, the pace of life, the love of culture and music in Paris, it’s influences from other nearby countries, priorities of Parisians all whilst learning a beautiful history of pianos. I felt completely absorbed in the gorgeous culture of Paris and the rich history of music and pianos. This was Carhart’s first book: I hope he writes more.
AUSTRIA: ‘The Story Of The Trapp Family Singers; The Story That Inspired The Sound of Music’ by Maria Augusta Trapp (by Harper Perennial; Harper Collins) This is the story of the real family that inspired the musical ‘The Sound Of Music’. A fascinating read about the original Maria; how she fell in love with the Baron, their marriage and life with Baron’s children and later, the children they had together. The book describes their life in Austria where the whole family had a strong love of Austrian culture, customs, family celebrations, landscape and wildlife which are beautifully and lovingly described. You can tell the author just loves her homeland, Austria. Covering the discovery of how their singing voices were beautifully matched, the musical talents within the family, their music concerts and tours we follow the family during their flight from Austria to Vermont in America and the life they created there incorporating the home and buildings they built to accommodate their music camps. Thank you to my friend, Harriet, who not only recommended such a great read to me, but then insisted on giving me the book.
ITALY: ‘Under the Tuscan Sun; At Home In Italy’ by Frances Mayes (Bantam Books; Transworld Publishers) Travelling to Italy with my family in 2012, I searched for books that would immerse me in the culture. I had read this book years earlier, but read it again whilst we travelled through Tuscany and it resonated with the picturesque landscape, delicious regional food and lifestyle we experienced and enjoyed. This book is a biography of Mayes’ experience of buying a holiday home in Tuscany and renovating it, her friendship with local people, discovery of the language, the pace of life and her love of the buildings, food, local specialties and her travels. The Italians seem to have a natural affinity to their landscape and make the most of their produce, landscape and history. Mayes becomes an advocate for Tuscany and her descriptions, way of life, Italian phrases that are spoken throughout the book and the local recipes she includes makes it a really evocative, apt and a wonderful read celebrating Italy.
The sequel ‘Bella Tuscany’ by Frances Mayes (Bantam Books; Transworld Publishers) is a wonderful continuation of her experiences and the Italian culture.
AUSTRALIA: ‘Black Kettle And Full Moon; Daily Life In a Vanished Australia’ by Geoffrey Blainey (Penguin) This book is a fascinating history of Australia between 1850 during the first gold rush and about 1915 at the beginning of World War I. It traces the effect of isolation of the Australian continent from Europe and the Americas and importance of the night sky and, later, of the telegram wire. We learn about communication in such an expansive country; how the ‘coo-ee’ sound travels so well, the effect of church and cattle bells and the importance of powerful narrators, speakers and storytellers at gatherings of those eager for news. Legends such as Ned Kelly, Burke and Wills and Cobb and Co. are described and we see their importance and relevance in Australian history. Diet and how it was influenced by the availability of livestock and ice, the invention of the Coolgardie and food safes and the value of billy tea is explained in an engaging history. The importance of communication over vast distances and how the different times and ranges of railroad gauges in different Australian States were resolved are explained. We get a real feel of the times and culture of Australia during this time; the concerns, priorities and developments. Thank you to Geoffrey Blainey who, when I wrote to him to ask him about which of his books I would enjoy next, suggested this one. He was right!
PAKISTAN AND AFGHANISTAN: ‘Three Cups Of Tea; One Man’s Mission To Promote Peace…One School At A Time’ by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin (Viking; Penguin Group) This book introduced me to a part of the world I didn’t know very well. Basically, it’s the true story of how an American guy, Greg Mortenson, was mountaineering with a team attempting to climb K2 (the second highest mountain after Mount Everest), got separated from his team and became terribly lost in the treacherous, snow-covered mountain range. He stumbled into a mountain village where the inhabitants, unfazed by cultural and language differences, saved his life. Moved by the villagers’ kindness whilst recuperating there, Mortenson promised to return to the village and build a school for girls. The book follows his return to America, raising of funds and return to the village to build first one, then fifty-four more schools for girls! We learn about the Pakistan and Afghanistan cultures through the people Mortenson encounters, the landscape, history and priorities as well as the building issues that had to be addresses with such isolated sites. The book is a tribute to a man with such determination and passion.
The sequel, ‘Stones Into Schools; Promoting Peace With Books, Not Bombs, In Afghanistan and Pakistan’ By Greg Mortenson with Mike Bryan (Viking; Penguin Group) follows the progress of the school and building programs, promoting peace through education and literacy.