This year, this fated year, was meant to be the first Very Exciting Travel Adventure that I’d ever had. I’ve been to a few countries in Western Europe – mostly for work rather than pleasure – but never ventured further away than Italy. I was booked onto the Trans-Mongolian Railway with a friend, and we were going to spend three weeks travelling around Russia, Mongolia, and China. The plan was to start in St Petersburg and end up in Beijing, and we were both very excited. In unsurprising news, we are not going to go this summer. We have managed to move our deposits to next year, and hopefully things will be sufficiently recovered by then that we both feel like it’s a risk worth taking – I’m honestly not 100% convinced we will – but in the meantime, I am obviously quite sad that my adventure isn’t going to pan out as planned.
Not to worry though – there are always books. I’ve never read any of the Russian masters, I’ve read very little Chinese literature, and I could only name one Mongolian author. Therefore, in lieu of travel, I am trying to develop a list of all the books I can read between now and August 2021, both to help me manage my disappointment at the change and to prepare to have an even better adventure next year.
Dr Zhivago by Boris Pasternak has been sitting on my shelf, lo, these many years. I know almost nothing about it – I bought it in a charity shop unaware of its status as a classic, because I liked the first page and it was dirt cheap – and have never picked it up since.
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. Last time I tried Anna Karenina, it suffered from being my gym audiobook, meaning a) that I only listened to it in the irregular fits and starts of my attempts to go to the gym, and b) I did not pay very much attention to it because I was too busy making sure that I had my posture right for rowing. Time for attempt two?
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky, like Tolstoy, is a huge gaping hole in my knowledge of classic literature – I am planning to start here, largely because I like the covers of this Vintage Classics Russian Masters series so much.
Dressed for a Dance in the Snow: Women’s Voices from the Gulag by Monika Zgustová – I heard about this over at What’s Nonfiction?, and have been trying to get hold of a copy ever since. In genuinely brilliant news, my library has reopened (albeit with very sensible and strict precautions)*, and the copy of this that I requested back in January has now arrived.
The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich. I have always been fascinated by the history of women in the military, especially those who have served in non-healthcare roles, maybe because it is so far from anything I could do myself and I want to know what it’s like.
The Blue Sky by Galsan Tschinag. There are almost no novels by Mongolian authors translated into English. In fact, I couldn’t find any novels actually translated from Mongolian into English, but Mongolian author Galsan Tschinag wrote Der Blaue Himmel, a novel about a young shepherd boy in the Altai Mountains. I am going to have a stab at reading it in the original German, but if I fail (which is likely) then this has been translated into English as well.
Mongolia by Jasper Becker. This was given to me by the lovely El Rhodes at the London Bookshop Crawl earlier this year – El has travelled extensively in this area and recommended this as a good starter.
Genghis Khan: The man who conquered the world by Frank McLynn. The most famous part of Mongolia’s history is Genghis Khan, about whom I know almost nothing. This biography seems like a good place to start.
The Secret History of the Mongol Queens by Jack Weatherford. This book is about Khan’s daughters, whom he installed as leaders in various parts of his empire, and in particular Queen Mandhuhai, who apparently rose to power as an impressive military leader.
History of Mongolia: From World Power to Soviet Satellite by Baabar. This book provides an overview of 20th century Mongolian history from a Mongolian historian. Given my difficulty in finding books translated into English, there is no way that I am going to skip over this one.
A Hero Born: Legends of the Condor Heroes by Jin Yong. I’ve been meaning to read the Condor Heroes series ever since it was translated into English in 2018. Unusually, I’d heard of it even before it was translated, thanks to its reputation as the Chinese Lord of the Rings. Every now and then, a fanboy who is (reasonably enough) impressed with his own ability to read Chinese pops up in an LOTR forum to bang on about it. This is also kind of a two-for-one, as it’s set partly in ancient Mongolia.
Red Sorghum by Mo Yan. This novel follows one family over three generations in China, beginning with the Japanese occupation that occurred in 1939. According to Goodreads, it looks at China’s changing relationship with Japan over the 20th century – a topic I vaguely recall reading about in Wild Swans, but otherwise know very little about.
Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, 1937-1945 by Rana Mitter
Honestly, I did not realise, until I started researching for this list, that China was one of the Allied forces during WWII. I should have known, because I did know they were at war with Japan at the time – but somehow I didn’t link them in my mind at all.
The Tragedy of Liberation: A history of the Chinese Revolution, 1945-1957 by Frank Dikotter
I do at least know more about this than the Chinese role in WWII – but still not tons. I have a general impression of it as being very different to the Russian revolution, which I studied in school, but that’s about it.
I Am China by Xiaolu Guo
I read about this initially over on Doing Dewey, and it sounds right up my street. A London-based translator becomes absorbed in the lives of a Chinese couple whose diaries and letters she is translating. Guo has written extensively in both English and Chinese – looking at her backlist, a lot of her books sound great, so I will be delighted if this turns out to be the work of a kindred spirit author.
Okay, here’s my question – what else should I be reading? I’ll read almost any genre (not horror or romance) and I also love nonfiction, so if you have a favourite book by an author from one of these countries, or about one of the countries, please let me know! In particular, I’m very keen to read any books about Mongolia’s transition from communism to democracy. As far as I can tell, it is one of relatively few countries in the former USSR to have had a non-violent revolution followed by nearly three decades of stability, and I’d love to know how they did it, but I can find very few sources out there other than academic papers. I also know a reasonable amount – not tons, but some – about China under Mao, but very little about subsequent decades. And all my Russian novels are classics – are there any contemporary novels you’d recommend?
*I know there are lots of book bloggers out there who work in libraries in some capacity or other, and I just wanted to say thank you. I had a small cry when I got the email to tell me my library was reopening – it’s the first thing in the gradual easing of lockdown that has made me feel like maybe things will be normal again one day.
I’m so thrilled your library reopened and you were able to get this one! And same, when I got the notification that we could safely do pickup and dropoff at some branches, I was beside myself with excitement. It’s a little thing but means so much. Anyway, excited to hear your thoughts on the book!
And I’m sorry that you couldn’t take this trip. That’s so disappointing, I can’t even imagine. I hope you’ll get to next year. It’s a dream of mine to do as well. Your reading list in the meantime looks fantastic though!
We’re even allowed to do a limited amount of browsing now, as long as we book in beforehand, don’t take more than 30 minutes, and put anything we touch on the table for cleaning afterwards – which is so much better than no browsing!
I’m aware that cancelling a big fancy trip is not the worst sacrifice people have made at this time – but I was sad about it nonetheless! At least it gives me a chance to do a lot of extra reading 🙂
That sounds excellent, and like they’re really being careful. We have no browsing, just pickup/drop off in NYC now but still, better than nothing. Have fun browsing!!
And of course, having a trip you were looking forward to canceled isn’t the worst thing that people are going through right now, but it’s what’s affecting you, so of course it’s upsetting. I really hope you’ll get to go soon though. Oh and I can’t wait to hear what you think of Unwomanly Face of War, it’s my favorite of hers. It was so affecting! And really interesting to hear these perspectives from something so unimaginable to me, like you mention.
As a library worker, thank you for acknowledging our work! People are gracious but half are aggressive because they library is open but not enough, or it’s open but we can’t help them one-on-one with technology and that upsets them. They put a mask on to get through the door and then take it off, etc.
I don’t have any book recommendations for the places you were going to travel to. It did strike me that Europeans often travel to other countries because many are small and close by. I think, “Wow, they’re such travelers!” Meanwhile, in the U.S. you can drive 2,000 miles and still be in the U.S., so people say we never leave the country. But I drove so far, and California is nothing like Michigan. All this is to say I understand why you felt like this was going to be your first real trip-trip.
I’m so thankful to library workers – the library at the school I went to between 16-18 was basically the only place in the school where I was ever happy, and the school librarian somehow twigged this and used to hold books behind the counter and recommend them to me when I went in. She introduced me to a couple of books I loved, but mostly I just remember her going out of her way to be kind to me.
I’ve never been 2000 miles from home – the longest trip I’ve ever taken is Southampton – Rome, which is about 1200 miles. I got very into the podcast The Hitch which is about a family driving across the US – it is completely fascinating to me that people can travel for days on end and still not really have seen much of the country. At a push, you could drive from the top to the bottom of (mainland) Britain in about 14 hours.
I just listened to part of The Hitch podcast to check it out. They sound so fun! The only issue is the balance of sound isn’t as strong as I need for my car speakers, unfortunately. I’ve listened to other podcasts like this, for which I have to turn my volume up all the way to the tip top, and that scares me.
What a shame your trip has had to be postponed. But your booklist looks fascinating so I hope you enjoy your virtual journey! No recommendations from me since I don’t think I’ve ever read a book about or set in Mongolia, and very little Russian or Chinese fiction too. I’ll be watching for recommendations from you as you read your way through these!
I was surprised to realise how little Russian and Chinese fiction I’d read, given that they’re both such big countries. Here’s hoping for some gems to crop up as part of this reading project!
Ah, I’m sorry you’ve had to postpone such a good-looking trip, but glad to see that your library will be able to help you read about the places you were going to visit! Libraries are the real hero (and the librarians of course!). And I just love those Russian Vintage Classics covers! I hope you’ll be able to travel safely next year, and that you’ll have some great reading in the meantime. 🙂
Thanks! Yes, they are gorgeous covers, aren’t they? If Dr Zhivago lives up to my expectations I will have to get it in the Vintage Classics edition so it matches, rather than my cheap charity shop version.
I’m way behind on reading other blogger’s posts, with the weirdness that’s time right now, but I’m excited to hear about the reading you had planned! I’ll be interested to hear how it turned out as I get caught up on posts. I loved The Unwomanly Face of War and Anna Karenina, so hopefully both of those and I Am China will turn out to be good reads for you.
I am sorry to hear you have to postpone your trip though. I will definitely be wishing for you to be able to go and for all of us to be back to normal by next year. Although it’s certainly not the same, I love your idea to try to recapture some of the excitement you had for your trip through reading.
Time is indeed very weird at the moment. I started out completely unable to concentrate on reading or blogging, and am suddenly doing much more of both than I would normally!
I really do hope that it is back to normal (or a more acceptable “new normal”) for all of us by this time next year.