Book Love: So I finished The Kite Runner

Blimey.  That was a bit emotional.  Blooming marvellous though.

Even though I’ve been hearing wonderful things about Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner for years, I was a bit nervous about reading it.  This is mainly because of everyone’s comments about how moving they found the story, talking about how it stayed with you long after finishing.  Now I am a bit of a lightweight with this kind of thing.  I cried at the Harry Potter books and I’m not ashamed to admit it.  I also couldn’t make it more than an hour into the film The Pianist, then couldn’t stop thinking about what I had seen for weeks.  So I was worried that The Kite Runner would just shake me up too much.

I needn’t have worried.  Yes, this is an emotional book which describes some awful events, but it is so beautifully written.  Khaled Hosseini deals with the terrible events in Afghanistan over the past 30 years with so much respect that you can’t help but be drawn in by his story, rather than repulsed by the violence.

I really cannot appreciate gratuitous violence and misery in people’s writing, be it for books, film or TV.  While we cannot ignore that awful things do happen in the world, I see no point in reporting them for their shock value alone.  Some kind of conclusion should be drawn, or point made.

Hosseini includes enough shock to create an image of Afghanistan at war, and later under Taliban rule, while keeping a very strong novel.  Violence enhances what he is trying to say, rather than being all he is saying.

And a lot was said.  I honestly had no idea.  I had no idea what really happened in Afghanistan.  I belong to a generation who has grown up associating the country with war, Muslim extremism, the Taliban, terrorism and destruction, without ever really understanding why.  In school I learned about life in Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia and even Thatcher’s Britain, but nobody ever taught us what was going on in the modern day world and why.

While this book is by no means a political history lesson, I found it fascinating to read, not only about everyday life under the Taliban, but also about peaceful Afghanistan.  I have no doubt that there were many problems – the main character is told when he returns in the midst of the poverty and destruction that Afghanistan was always like this, he had just been too priveliged to notice – but it was once a country like any other.  It was not always the land of rubble and bombs.  If nothing else, this book has inspired me to find out what happened to that country, rather than being intimidated by seemingly confusing Middle Eastern politics.

So I’m now on the lookout for a good book to explain it to me – any suggestions would be greatly appreciated!

There was so much I loved about this book.  The setting and politics were, sadly, entirely realistic and believable, but Amir’s personal story was just poetic and coincidental enough to excite the former English student in me – themes and motifs abound.

I loved the fact that, while pure good and pure evil are certainly embodied in the characters of Hassan and Assef, the vast majority of characters lie somewhere in the middle, in that grey area that most of us spend our whole lives flitting around.  The goodies and baddies are not always clear.

I loved that the USA was hardly brought into the book from a political point of view.  Since the second half of the book takes place in the summer of 2001, while reading this I was on tenterhooks wondering what the September 11th attacks would bring.  But this was not the point.  America is not considered a villian.

On a slight side note, this did set me off wondering when we became so suspicious of the US government’s intentions.  And coincidentally (or maybe not so much, given that it’s the anniverary of the 9/11 attacks) I came across this article on the Guardian website (“Widespread distrust of US extends beyond Middle East”).  But that’s a different topic.

I could say so much more about this book, but I won’t – there’s a lot of hype about it already, and you should read and form your own opinions.  It is an incredibly touching story and somehow manages to be not entirely pessimistic.  I loved it and now can’t wait to get my hands on A Thousand Splendid Suns, Hosseini’s other bestseller.

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Travel Love: Food, Food and a Volcano

In my last post I blathered on about how much I adore the gorgeous colonial town of Antigua in Guatemala.  In this post I thought I’d actually give some kind of useful information, just in case you ever happen to find yourself passing through.

One thing I would absolutely recommend you do if you are even vaguely active is climb Pacaya Volcano.  It’s pretty cheap to join a trip and one of the easier volcanos in Central America to climb.  The first time I visited Antigua, there was real lava at the top of Pacaya, but it erupted in 2010, so now there are only hot patches to toast marshmallows on.  But in the future, the lava will no doubt be back!  I’d definitely recommend going on a morning trip (even though they leave at the higly unreasonable hour of 6am) because afternoons, especially in the rainy season, tend to have poor visibility, and there’s a pretty high chance that you will get rained on.  And getting caught in a Central American rainstorm is not fun.  Trust me.

Volcano climbing

One of my absolute favouritest things about Antigua is the abundance of awesome cafes.  Here are a few of my picks:

Cafe Condesa – On the main square, this cafe has amazing (and huge servings of) cake, great food, quick and friendly service, and a beautiful courtyard.  Perfect.

Luna de Miel – The most amazing crepes in a very cute cafe.  If there was a branch of this place near my house, I would absolutely be the size of a small house.  (Enjoy the mistranslations on the website – the crepes are definitely not made to disgust, I think they mean enjoy!)

Bagel Barn – A bit anglicised, but it really does make great bagels, and they show some good free films.  I recommend the mozzarella, tomato and basil bagel, proper mozzarella!  (Note: this was one of my favourite places, until one of the staff refused to give me more hot water to reuse a teabag!  This seemed a bit ridiculous, so just don’t have tea in there…)

La Casaca – Yet another coffee shop on the main square, there are comfy sofas and great teas (with unlimited hot water!), plus the usual selection of crepes and cakes.

Mono Loco – A sports bar that’s a bit more expensive but does wonderful comfort food and always has a great soundtrack.  The best internet cafe is there too.

WokCo – Great new restaurant that prepares custom-made, veggie-packed stirfries right in front of you.  Great healthy fast food.  Come to the UK please!

Restaurante Doña Luisa Xicotencatl – Incredible breakfasts!

Obviously a lot of these choices aren’t very traditionally Guatemalan, but those options are there as well!  I chose the places I truly wish were just round the corner from my house at home – I’m so sad to leave them…

There is a multitude of other things to do and places to visit in Antigua, but the guidebooks can fill you in on that, and I think this post’s long enough!  So I guess all that’s left now is to plead with you to go and see Antigua for yourself – get planning!

Travel Love: My Favourite Town in the World?

This blog is most definitely not a travel blog.  I can’t cope with the sheer pressure of having to report accurate details of every trip I take – I much prefer to enjoy them and then savour the photos.  This is part of the reason the blog has not be inundated with posts about random Central American villages, despite the fact I’ve been travelling between them for the best part of three months.  But I go home on Wednesday, so thought this would be a marvellous opportunity to share my highlights of the trip (and maybe a few holiday snaps, if you’ll excuse me).

In the summer of 2009, while waiting for my A-level results in that glorious commitment-free summer before starting university, I spent five weeks volunteering in Guatemala.  This is in the running for the best thing I’ve ever done.  The people running the charity were two of the most committed and inspirational people I’ve ever met, and I truly felt that what I was doing would change lives.  I was teaching in a volunteer-run school for indigineous children, all of whom were incredibly poor and would not otherwise have had the chance to go to school or even learn Spanish, as they all speak a local indigenous language.  When I was there, classes were taught by volunteers from developed countries, but the plan was always to make the schools self-sufficient, training ex-students as teachers.  And I was so so proud to find on returning that this has finally been achieved, after 10 years of hard slog!

In case you’re interested in finding out any more about the charity, it’s called Fly the Phoenix and their website can be found here.  It truly is  very worthy cause, and I’m so proud to be associated with them.

Anyway.  Getting back on topic.  As well as the amazing experience of volunteering, I had the chance to live in quite possibly the most beautiful town in Central America – Antigua, Guatemala.  I adore this place.  I’ve met so many people who complain that it’s too full of tourists and it’s true, there are a lot of foreign tourists about and a huge selection of language schools.  But the amazing thing about Antigua is that it still retains a lot of its Guatemalan personality.  There are cobbled streets, brightly painted buildings, and ladies in traditional indigenous dress all over the place.  And because there are so many language learners, people go out of their way to speak Spanish to you, rather than English.

So of course we simply had to make sure we visited on this trip.

As you can see, I was pretty happy to be back!

The town has the most incredible setting, surrounded by three volcanos that you can always see in clear weather.

Volcan Fuego

One of the reasons I don’t mind all the tourists is that, because of them, Antigua has some pretty great cafes and bars.  In fact, we spent most of our time there this time stuffing our face with cake and crepes, and drinking extortionate amounts of tea.  If, like me, you are an addict of both tea and chocolate, this is pretty much heaven.  I’ll pop another post up with my top places, in case you’re interested.

This chilled out atmosphere means that I count Antigua as one of the places I could happily live, regardless of where it is in the world.  I probably wouldn’t ever actually up sticks and move there, since I’ve discovered this year that I don’t cope well with being far away from my family and friends.  Even so, I can definitely see myself coming back here yet again in the future, it’s one of my places.

My favourite town in the world?  Very possibly.

Travel Love: The Joy of Book Swaps

This summer I’ve been travelling around Central America with a friend.  While I have A LOT to say about this experience, I want to limit myself to books for this post.

Travelling has given me the most wonderful opportunity to read again.  While I’m at uni, my reading time is sadly far too limited, and I constantly feel guilty if I’m not reading something course related.  But while travelling, I’ve had so much time to just sit around and simply be in a place.  While reading.  Bliss.

And the fuel to my reading fire has been hostel book swaps.  I find hostels superior to hotels in so many ways – the sociable atmosphere, guest kitchens, (generally) friendly staff etc etc – but the book swap is very possibly my favourite aspect.  I simply cannot get over how marvellous it is that I can come away for 3 months with one book, and keep reading the whole time.  There is such a range of genres and different tastes, and on occasion I’ve been forced into choosing books I normally wouldn’t even look at (this is how I found Still Alice, one of my new favourite books).

I’ve heard other travellers complain that book swaps are only ever full of terrible beach reads – I am here to tell you this is a lie.  On this trip, my goodies have included The Help, Slaughterhouse Five, A Visit From the Goon Squad, and I am just embarking on The Kite Runner, probably my final read of the trip.

As I get closer and closer to going home, I’ve been lamenting the soon-to-be loss of the book swap in my life.  What will I do back in England without a place to pick up free books, then be able to get rid of them when I’m done and save my space? It’s such a useful resource!  We should adopt this idea in everyday life at home!

Then I realised quite how much of an idiot I had been.  What are libraries if not a place to temporarily acquire new (to me) books?  I am a useless library user – I’m not even a member of the public library in Bath, where I’ve been at uni for two whole years.  So my new academic year’s resolution is to join this library and start making use of one of our most fabulous resources.  It’s no wonder David Cameron and his government are doing their best to wipe out libraries, when even active readers forget to use them!

Is anyone else a lapsing library member?  Do you agree with me that it’s a great way to make a dent in the to-read list, or do you prefer the thrill of buying books for yourself?

Book Love: I Love Eat, Pray

While I was in Italy, I listened to a few audiobooks, but due to my aforementioned rubbishness, my thoughts never quite made it onto the blog.  After the disaster that was Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I tried Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, who also narrates the audiobook version – a nice touch, I thought.

I had listened to a couple of other audiobooks (A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Stephen Fry’s autobiography), and the national treasure that is Stephen Fry had convinced me with his wonderful narration that the audiobook format wasn’t my problem.  I just really didn’t like that book.  So by the time I got to Eat, Pray, Love, my optimism had returned and I had high expectations.

Happily, I wasn’t disappointed.  Or not at first anyway.  For anyone who managed to escape the mass-media publicity when the film came out, the book is a memoir of a 30-something American woman who heads off to travel around the world and get her life (and head) back together after her messy divorce.  It’s in three sections, as Liz travels to Italy, India and Indonesia, corresponding to the Eat, Pray, Love malarky.  Clever stuff.

Now, this was a bit of a strange choice of book for me, given a good third of it (probably more) is dedicated almost entirely to God and spirituality.  I’ve talked about my feelings on religion before when I read Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, but essentially I’m a very convinced atheist, happy to let everyone believe what they want, but curious about why they do.  I have a tendency to find books about people “finding God” and “going on a spiritual journey” frustrating, because I can rarely understand what is motivating them in this, or why they believe what they do.

I did not have this problem at all with Liz Gilbert.  She explained beautifully her view of God and why she felt reassured by feeling close to him.  There is no way I could possibly report her views as eloquently as she writes about them, but I will say that reading this book was one of the times I felt jealous of true, honest, 100% believers.  I was jealous of Liz’s faith, and the calmness and happiness she managed to find in her search for God.  Sometimes I wish I was capable of that kind of belief, but then I accept that my logic simply won’t let me and determine to find my own peace and happiness.  In Liz’s words:

Happiness is the consequence of personal effort.

I agree with this woman in so many ways.  Her determination to be confident and at peace really resonated with me.  I also really related to her metaphysical crisis at age 10 – wanting the world to just stop so she could get her head around the concept of time and its passing.  I feel like this so often, especially when I’m happy with my life.  I want to freeze my favourite moments forever, and am almost sad knowing that my happiness will be over soon.

In fact, I related so much to Liz Gilbert’s ideas, and found them so relevant to me and my life (despite being a 21 year old single university student, not a 30-something divorcee journalist), that I’ve re-listened to this book while I’ve been travelling in Central America.  Or some of the book, anyway.

I mentioned that I wasn’t disappointed by Eat, Pray, Love at first.  I adored the first two sections in Italy and India.  Unfortunately, the section in Bali when Liz finally finds love just (dare I say it?) bored me a little.  It wasn’t the greatest slog to get to the end of the book, but on my second time round I cut off after India.  After all, what’s the point wasting time on something you don’t love?

Despite this, I can’t help but recommend this book, and I get the feeling it’s going to be one I keep coming back to when I need a little pick-me-up and someone to put life into perspective.  The tone is not remotely self-pitying and I found it very motivational to keep trying to improve myself.  Well worth the read.

Book Love: Still Alice, by Lisa Genova

I have been a very bad blogger.  I have been busy and travelling and full of excuses instead of replying to the lovely people who have looked at my blog and maybe even taken the time to leave a comment.  I am still busy and travelling, but just wanted to pop in a quick post about a book I’ve read while being busy and travelling.  I picked it up in a hostel book swap without really thinking, read it in a couple of days and still keep thinking about it.

It’s called Still Alice by Lisa Genova and is written from the point of view of a woman with early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease.  She is a well-respected Harvard psychology professor, which just makes her understanding of the disease even more devastating.  It is beautifully written to show the advancing disease from Alice’s point of view, and is incredibly moving.  Alice’s feelings and reactions of her family bring up all kinds of issues about the treatment of Alzheimer’s patients, their quality of life, and the trust they put in their carers as they become more dependent.  I honestly don’t believe anyone (other than someone with dementia) could read this book without changing the way they think about this desease.

These illnesses are so often discussed by carers, friends and family, it is refreshing to truly consider what the patient wants and thinks.  This issue of giving a voice to dementia sufferers is one that is addressing in the novel, and I personally found Alice an inspiring character.  It has completely changed the way I think about dementia and its treatment, and my mind is still being drawn back to it weeks later.  And then I discovered that the book has a 5 star Amazon rating and 4.2 on Goodreads – so it’s obviously not just me!

I can’t recommend this book enough – Lisa Genova has managed to take an incredibly emotional topic and create a novel which is not depressing or hopeless, just realistic and thought-provoking.  Quite an achievement, in my opinion.