Review: The Lady and the Monk

Initially, I was really excited to read Pico Iyer’s The Lady and the Monk.

For those in the know, Iyer is one of the world’s leading travel writers today (travel writer, not blogger) whose observations have made him quite famous. I was especially attracted to this book because it features Kyoto, my soul city in Japan. I decided to read it after I visited because I didn’t want to spoil my first impressions with someone else’s viewpoint and wasn’t I glad I did!

In essence, The Lady and the Monk recounts Iyer’s decision to spend a year in Kyoto living a Thoreau –inspired, monkish existence only to be distracted by a beguiling lady, Sachiko. In this way, his narrative follows the template of many of the Japanese lady and monk poems and stories he reads (life imitating art, perhaps?).

The book primarily focuses on the problems of preconceptions: those Iyer has about Japan/Japanese and those Sachiko has about the West/Westerners. Through their progressive interactions, we see both characters shed their initial romanticized notions and naiveté and slowly accept some ugly truths.

Iyer comes to Japan, thinking he already knows it, based on his reading. He seems obsessed with the feminine side of Japan and actively seeks it, especially in his relationship with Sachiko.

 “…but the private Japan, and the emotional Japan — the lunar Japan, in a sense, that I had found in the poems of women and monks — was increasingly hard to glimpse. If this imaginative Japan existed only in my mind, I wanted to know that soon, and so be free of the illusion forever; yet if there were truly moments in Japan that took me back to a home as distantly recalled as the house in which I was born, I wanted to know that too.”

In the beginning, he tends to over-idealize the Japanese based on his own superficial, fly-on-the-wall observations.

“I never saw any of the children shout, or squawk, or throw a tantrum, and I never saw any of the mothers lose her smiling equanimity: both parties formed a tableau of contentment. In New York, the near-absence of children had struck me as a denaturing almost, and in California, the sense of endless possibility that was the state’s greatest hope seemed all but a curse in the hands of its young. But here, wherever I looked, I found images of madonna-and-child, in a world that seemed so settled that it almost cast no shadow.”

He also captures the seasons and changing landscape of Kyoto beautifully.

“…I felt the brightness of the Japanese autumn was like nothing I had ever seen before: such hope and stillness in the air. Tingling mornings in shiny coffee shops, dazzled afternoons among the white-robed priests: singing Handel days of rapture and precision.”

He even becomes quasi-Japanese when he travels abroad to Taiwan after a couple of months in Kyoto.

“So sheltered had my life become in Kyoto — so sanitized of danger or alarm — that I had all but forgotten that another world existed; and now it was a shock to enter a stage where tempers were lost, things went wrong, the surface snapped.”

Unlike Iyer, Sachiko idealizes the West. She loves Stand by Me, Aha, Bruce Springsteen, and Bryan Adams and often compares Iyer’s freewheeling life to her rigid role of Japanese wife and mother.

“You are bird, you go everywhere in world, very easy. I all life living only Kyoto. So I dream I go together you. I have many, many dream in my heart. But I not have a strong heart. You very different.”

She, too, learns the hard way and changes her mind a bit about Western men after a particularly awkward moment with a foreigner who mistook her friendship as sexual.

As time passes, through his relationships with Sachiko, other Japanese people, and gaijin (foreigners) in Japan, Iyer also begins to see the darker underbelly of Japan and becomes more discerning.

“This was the social contract in Japan: forfeit your individuality and you would receive a life of perfect stability and comfort; give yourself over to Japan and it would never let you down. It was like a kind of emotional welfare system: give up your freedom and you would receive a life so convenient that you’d hardly notice the freedom you’d relinquished.”

“Mother Japan prepared its children only, and ideally, for Japan.”

However, after a year passes, he leaves Japan with his romanticized vision of the country nearly intact.

“It was only later, after I had left Japan, that I realized that everything had been there that night: the lanterned dark, the moon above the mountains, the dreamlike maiden in kimono. There was the Heian vision I had sought since childhood. And yet, by now, it was so much a part of my life that I had not even seen it till it was gone.”

Although parts of the book can appear heavily romanticized and dwell too much on Zen Buddhism and Japanese poetry, The Lady and the Monk presents a generally balanced picture of Japan and Japanese culture, both the traditional and modern aspects.

Verdict: I highly recommend it.

Have you ever read The Lady and the Monk? What did you think about it?

Around the world in 100 books

I’m a book nerd. Always have been. Always will be.

Since childhood, I’ve taken books with me everywhere: in the backseat, at the beach, on the lawn, at the pool, under the covers, in the crook of a plum tree (like Brick from The Middle). I sniff out bookshelves, libraries, and bookstores wherever I go. Good books are presents I’ll never refuse.

One of the cheapest ways I travel is from an armchair. Even if I can’t literally visit a country, I still experience it through reading. This is a list of books from across the globe that I’ve read over the years.

Disclaimer: For each entry, I’ve included which country is featured in each book rather than the author’s country of origin. I know I haven’t read the whole world yet so this list is not definitive. It’s also highly subjective (based on my own personal biases) and is a work in progress. Adding solid titles is my lifelong commitment.

Around the world in 100 books

  1. A house for Mr. Biswas by V.S. Naipaul (Trinidad and Tobago)
  2. The mystic masseur by V.S. Naipaul (Trinidad and Tobago)
  3. Miguel Street by V.S. Naipaul (Trinidad and Tobago)
  4. Minty Alley by C.L.R James (Trinidad and Tobago)
  5. A brighter sun by Sam Selvon (Trinidad and Tobago)
  6. Ways of sunlight by Sam Selvon (Trinidad and Tobago)
  7. The hummingbird tree by Ian McDonald (Trinidad and Tobago)
  8. The dragon can’t dance by Earl Lovelace (Trinidad and Tobago)
  9. Green days by the river by Michael Anthony (Trinidad and Tobago)
  10. Crick crack monkey by Merle Hodge (Trinidad and Tobago)
  11. The jumbie bird by Ismith Khan (Trinidad and Tobago)
  12. The swinging bridge by Ramabai Espinet (Trinidad and Tobago)
  13. Raise the lanterns high by Lakshmi Persaud (Trinidad and Tobago)
  14. Prospero’s Daughter by Elizabeth Nunez (Trinidad and Tobago)
  15. Trinidad Noir edited by Lisa Allen Agostini and Jeanne Mason (Trinidad and Tobago)
  16. The old man and the sea by Ernest Hemingway (Cuba)
  17. Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid (Antigua)
  18. Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid (Antigua/US)
  19. John Crow’s Devil by Marlon James (Jamaica)
  20. Kingston Noir edited Colin Channer (Jamaica)
  21. The annihilation of Fish and other stories by Anthony Winkler (Jamaica)
  22. The bones and my flute by Edgar Mittelholzer (Guyana)
  23. Beka Lamb by Zee Edgell (Belize)
  24. The Tunnel by Ernesto Sabato (Argentina)
  25. One hundred years of solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Colombia)
  26. Like water for chocolate by Laura Esquivel (Mexico)
  27. Into the wild by Jon Krakauer (US)
  28. The Diamond as big as the Ritz and other stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald (US)
  29. To kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (US)
  30. East of Eden by John Steinbeck (US)
  31. The Pearl by John Steinbeck (US)
  32. On the road by Jack Kerouac (US)
  33. The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac (US)
  34. Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller (US)
  35. A streetcar named Desire by Tennessee Williams (US)
  36. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (US)
  37. Brown girl, brownstones by Paula Marshall (US)
  38. The Beloved by Khalil Gibran (US)
  39. Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery (Canada)
  40. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (Canada)
  41. The Stranger by Albert Camus (Algeria)
  42. Distant view of the minaret by Alifa Rifaat (Egypt)
  43. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (Congo)
  44. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (Congo)
  45. The beautyful ones are not yet born by Ayi Kwei Armah (Ghana)
  46. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (Nigeria)
  47. Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Nigeria)
  48. The god of small things by Arundhati Roy (India)
  49. An area of darkness by V.S. Naipaul (India)
  50. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie (India)
  51. Cracking India by Bapsi Sidwa (India/Pakistan)
  52. Clear light of day by Anita Desai (India)
  53. Games at twilight by Anita Desai (India)
  54. Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard by Kiran Desai (India)
  55. Malgudi Days by R.K. Narayan (India)
  56. The lady and the monk: four seasons in Kyoto by Pico Iyer (Japan)
  57. Glimpses of an unfamiliar Japan by Lafcadio Hearn  (Japan)
  58. Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden (Japan)
  59. A personal matter by Kenzaburo Oe (Japan)
  60. Waiting by Ha Lin (China)
  61. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini  (Afghanistan)
  62. A thousand splendid suns by Khaled Hosseini (Afghanistan)
  63. Pillars of salt by Fadia Faqir (Jordan)
  64. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (UK)
  65. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte (UK)
  66. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (UK)
  67. Tess of the D’Ubervilles by Thomas Hardy (UK)
  68. Of human bondage by Somerset Maugham (UK/Germany)
  69. The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon (UK)
  70. Macbeth by William Shakespeare (UK)
  71. Hamlet by William Shakespeare (Denmark)
  72. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis (UK)
  73. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (UK)
  74. Women in love by DH Lawrence (UK)
  75. White Teeth by Zadie Smith (UK)
  76. Brick Lane by Monica Ali (UK)
  77. Dubliners by James Joyce (Ireland)
  78. Men and Gods by Rex Warner (Greece)
  79. Istanbul by Orhan Pamuk (Turkey)
  80. Therese Desqueyroux by Francois Mauriac (France)
  81. La Casa de Bernarda Alba by Federico Garcia Lorca (Spain)
  82. Yerma by Federico Garcia Lorca (Spain)
  83. The sun also rises by Ernest Hemingway (France/Spain)
  84. The girl with the dragon tattoo by Steig Larson (Sweden)
  85. Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder (Norway)
  86. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Nigeria/US/UK)
  87. Open City by Teju Cole (Nigeria/US)
  88. The amazing, absorbing boy by Rabindranath Maharaj (Trinidad/Canada)
  89. The mimic men by VS Naipaul (Trinidad/UK)
  90. The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri (India/US)
  91. Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri (India/US)
  92. The inheritance of loss by Kiran Desai (India/US)
  93. Small Island by Andrea Levy (Jamaica/UK)
  94. The Buddha in the attic by Julie Otsuka (Japan/US)
  95. A tale for the time being by Ruth Ozeki (US/Japan)
  96. Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (Jamaica/Dominica/UK)
  97. Voyage in the dark by Jean Rhys (Caribbean/UK)
  98. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho (Spain/Egypt)
  99. Eat, pray, love by Elizabeth Gilbert (Italy/India/Bali)
  100. Life of Pi by Yann Martel (India/Pacific Ocean)

What titles should I add? Make your recommendations below!

Keeping a travel journal

When you travel, do you jot down your thoughts?

Do you still have that fistful of sand you grabbed from that beach that looked straight out of a movie? Do you love to doodle about the location you’re in?

I have always journaled but my first travel journal began when I went on my first international trip to the US. Although I wrote fleeting thoughts in a star-spangled, ring-bound notebook I picked up in a bargain bin, it was a start.

Writing Away by Lavinia Spalding is a great book for anyone who wants to learn more about the art of keeping a travel journal. Her style is pretty conversational and she doles out great practical tips.  Even if you don’t know where to start, she offers a list of journal prompts to get those juices flowing. So how do you write a travel journal that’s worth reading? Here are a few of Spalding’s tips about keeping it old school.

1. Start writing now.

Think you can only crack open that baby when the trip starts? Why wait? Spalding recommends getting down those expectations and goals before you arrive at your destination. In this way, you can compare them with the ones you have post-trip.

2. Take notes when you can’t journal.

Sometimes, it’s just not practical to write long-winded paragraphs because you’re climbing a mountain or scuba diving with Nemo. Spalding recommends taking notes (trigger words, phrases etc.) as soon as you can while the memory’s fresh and then writing longer stuff during downtime (but not too long after the event).

3. Don’t just write.

Spalding suggests filling your travel journal with more than words: quotes from people you meet on the road, rubbings, drawings (even if you’re not an artist), handprints, messages from other travelers, ticket stubs, maps, dried flowers, menus, anything you like!

4. Don’t just blog about it.

Spalding emphasizes that a blog can never truly replace a travel journal. Remember a blog usually has a very public audience (unless you set your blog to private mode) and there are some things you can’t or shouldn’t share with strangers in cyberspace. Many beginner travel bloggers (including myself when I started in 2011) treat blog posts as diary entries, writing about mundane details like what they had for breakfast and how long they waited in the train station. Spare your readers those boring details.

There are many other gems in Writing Away but I can’t just give it all away. It’s not fair to the writer. Also note, I am not paid to write these things about the book so please make your own mind up about it. Happy journaling!

6 novelists from T&T you should know about

“The best way to know the soul of another country is to read its literature.” Amos Oz

Trinidad and Tobago, located at the end of the Caribbean archipelago and very close to the South American continent, is a cultural hotbed. The birthplace of steelpan and calypso is also home to an established and incredibly diverse literary tradition. Many writers from these islands have excelled internationally, writing primarily in English, the nation’s official language. Others have experimented with other native languages such as Trinidadian Creole English with considerable success. Planning on traveling to T&T and want to get to know the culture inside out? Here are 6 classic Trinbagonian authors you should check out.

V.S. Naipaul

Naipaul was born in Trinidad when the island was still a British colony. He won a scholarship to study English at Oxford University and eventually won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001. One my favorite books of his is A House for Mr. Biswas, his third novel. Partly inspired by his father’s experiences, the story is set in colonial Trinidad and traces the life of Mohun Biswas, who although “born in the wrong way,” perseveres to release himself from the crippling influence of his in-laws and to build a house for himself and his family. Naipaul’s writing is on point, offering acute and often witty observations of Trinidadian people, culture, and island life during the early 20th century.

Samuel Selvon

Sam Selvon is one of those authors who can write Trinidadian Creole English down pat. I discovered him in high school when I read A Brighter Sun. The Lonely Londoners is another one of his masterpieces, exploring Caribbean immigration to the UK during the late 1940s to the early 1960s, also known as the Windrush Generation. Selvon, a gifted though often overlooked Trinidadian author, like his protagonists, also emigrated to the UK to pursue his dream of writing novels. The Lonely Londoners highlights the humorous yet poignant adventures of Caribbean immigrants in a city plagued with a racism they cannot understand. 

CLR James

Although CLR James is well known as a historian, political activist, and cricket expert, he is also a great novelist. Written in the late 1920s, his classic, Minty Alley, like James Joyce’s Dubliners, tells the stories of working class people living in the cramped alleys and backstreets of Trinidad’s capital city, Port of Spain. This was also the first novel published in England by a black West Indian.

Earl Lovelace

Unlike other writers from Trinidad and Tobago, Earl Lovelace never really left Trinidad to pursue his dream to write fiction. One of his best-known works, The Wine of Astonishment, tells the story of Bonasse, a poor, Shouter Baptist community faced with religious persecution by the colonial government and plagued by the consequences of a cultural invasion by American soldiers during World War Two.  

Merle Hodge

Merle Hodge’s Crick Crack Monkey is a bildungsroman of Tee, a motherless girl who is caught between the worlds of two matriarchs, Tantie and Aunt Beatrice. The novel explores the flaws of the country’s education system and the cost of upward social mobility in postcolonial Trinidad.

Michael Anthony

Michael Anthony is one of those authors who put South Trinidad on the literary map. Born and raised in Mayaro, much of his work feature coming-of-age tales of young men living in the seaside community.  His work, particularly Green Days by the River and The Year in San Fernando, depict the pastoral beauty of the countryside and a loss of innocence of the protagonists.

5 books to help you understand the Caribbean

Think the Caribbean is just a sun, sea, and sand playground where rum flows like water and sunsets make you cry?

Think again.

As a traveler, if you really want to understand the region more deeply, read Caribbean literature by Caribbean authors. Dig below the Instagrammable surface of street parties and deserted beaches and you’ll find a very strange place. It’s a place where many were forced to come, whether as slaves or indentured laborers.  Here are my picks to understand the people, the landscape, and culture of the Caribbean.

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

Wide Sargasso Sea tells the backstory of Bertha Mason, a minor character from Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. In Jane Eyre, Bertha is portrayed as Rochester’s mad first wife from the tropics but Rhys goes deeper. She tells the story of Antoinette Cosway (her real name) and Rochester’s inability to understand his Creole wife and the tropical landscape of the Caribbean. Here’s one of my favorite quotes.

 “I hated the mountains and the hills and the rivers and the rain…I hated its indifference and the cruelty which was part of its loveliness. Above all I hated her. For she belonged to the magic and the loveliness.”

Mimic Men and A Way in the World by VS Naipaul

VS Naipaul is an award-winning writer who often effaces his Trinidadian roots. Some may say that Naipaul has a nihilistic vision of the West Indies. Others say he’s spot on. Take it or leave it, here are my favorite quotes from two of his best books.

Mimic Men

“To be born on an island like Isabella, an obscure New World transplantation, second-hand and barbarous, was to be born to disorder.”

“We pretended to be real, to be learning, to be preparing ourselves for life, we mimic men of the New World, one unknown corner of  it, with all its reminders of the corruption that same so quickly to the new.”

“I have also hinted at the easiness with which on the morning of arrival I saw through each porthole the blue, green and gold of the tropical island. So pure and fresh! And I knew it to be horribly manmade; to be exhausted, fraudulent, cruel and above all, not mine.”

A Way in the World

“We didn’t have backgrounds. We didn’t have a past. For most of us the past stopped with our grandparents; beyond that was a blank
We were just there, floating.” 

“But we go back and back, forever; we go back all of us to the very beginning; in our blood and bone and brain we carry the memories of thousands of beings
But that would only be a fragment of his inheritance, a fragment of the truth. We cannot understand all the traits we have inherited. Sometimes we can be strangers to ourselves.”

The Sea is History by Derek Walcott

St Lucian-born Derek Walcott was a literary genius who wrote several poems and plays. His work reflects razor-sharp insight into the region’s divisive colonial and post-colonial past. Although it’s technically not a book, here are a few lines from one of Walcott’s most famous poems about Caribbean history.

“Where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs?
Where is your tribal memory? Sirs,
in that gray vault. The sea. The sea
has locked them up. The sea is History.”

The White Woman on the Green Bicycle by Monique Roffey

Roffey is a Trinidadian-born writer based in the UK. Her descriptions of Trinidad and Port of Spain, its capital city, are faultless.

“How he loved this city. Port of Spain. Poor blind-deaf city. It spanned back, in a grid, from a busy port and dock; worn out now, ruined and ruinous and suffering, always suffering…parts of the city still renewed themselves, rising up against the odds.”

“George liked it so, that this island was uncompromising and hard for tourists to negotiate. Not all welcome smiles and black men in Hawaiian shirts, playing pan by the poolside. No flat, crystal beaches, no boutique hotels. Trinidad was oil-rich, didn’t need tourism. Trinidadians openly sniggered at the sunburnt American women who wandered down the pavement in shorts and bikini top. Trinidad was itself; take it or leave it.”