Two Books and A Beach

Carolyn and I spent our childhoods on stretches of wild, beautiful Scottish beaches, clambering over rocks and coming home in the evening with tangles in our hair. When at the age of ten I moved to Switzerland, and Carolyn then moved further north, we kept in contact through parcels, containing loaned books and letters of reading recommendations. The cost of posting such heavy goods certainly took a toll on our piggy banks, but the glee of receiving a good book recommended by a friend wrapped in brown paper does not begin to match that of receiving a Facebook inbox notification. A decade or so down the line, it is only fitting that my first post on this shared blog of inspiring gems is about books and beaches.

Buddha in the Attic”, written by Julie Otsuka in 2011, is the type of book that needs a recommendation, another one, and then a few more. It’s a book that should be passed around until tatty and sellotaped on the spine, compulsory reading at school, even surreptitiously printed in instalments on billboards of bus stations, just so that everyone gets to read it. It’s the story of the Japanese women who arrived as picture brides on the shores of San Francisco in the early 1900s. These women leave Japan by boat, meet the strangers who become their husbands and settle into their new lives in a foreign land. They suffer unspeakable abuse and violence, and navigate economic hardship and local hostility. Years go by, and as they finally start to build stable livelihoods and roots in the US, the war breaks out. Fear of the enemy leads to the establishment of labour camps for Japanese residents in the US, and the women are on the move again.

What is truly remarkable about the novel, is that rather than being told through one or several narrators, each sentence tells a different women’s story. Each destiny is entirely unique, each experience distinct, yet the variety of voices results in a chorus. It feels entirely feasible for the reader to imagine their own destiny somewhere amongst this chorus, as each woman’s story is so different from each other’s as they are to our very own. It becomes evident through reading if war were to come, how easily I could find myself as an enemy in a foreign land, how people could become suspicious of me and how fear could create deathly divisions in my community. Within the symphony of these voices, my position of safety as a reader is broken down, as one of these voices could be mine. The quiet voices of these women have a lot to teach us about fear, division and the necessity of questioning our relationship with “the other”. This book is truly a masterpiece; innovative, yet unassuming.

My second book recommendation for early 2016 is a good crunchy and satisfying story, the perfect tome for a bookworm to bring on holiday. “Purity” by Jonathan Franzen may be a bestseller, but as so many people asked me what the big brick I was carrying with me was, I felt I could justify a recommendation. Franzen is a controversial author to say the least, and reviews for Purity range from “Dickensian masterpiece” to “Irrelevant piece of shit”. It’s an epic novel involving a “Julian Assange-type” internet warrior, an investigative journalist digging into a conspiracy on nuclear weapons, a toxic marriage of gendered power struggles, a millennial graduate burdened with student loans, flashbacks to life of a high powered family in East Germany, mental illness and a hacking powerhouse hidden in a Bolivian forest. Franzen writes novels that are impossible to summarise and impossible to remember coherently what happened once the last page is turned. However, this complexity creates complete and fascinating characters, and their inner monologues provide endless entertainment. Make yourself a fabulous cocktail, get comfy, and enjoy the intellect and scathing wit of this skilled storyteller.

As to the beautiful beach to read these books at… Dreaming of the sea and warmth is a preferred pastime of mine on a rainy, cold February afternoon in Switzerland. At the beginning of the year, I was extremely lucky to visit a place that deserves a special mention under the “gem of happiness” category of recommendations. On a small island called Culebra, off Puerto Rico in the Caribbean, lies Playa Flamenco. To get there, the intrepid travellers must rise early at five am, queue at the ferry terminal at the far east of Puerto Rico and hope that they rose early enough to buy a golden ticket. The sleepier ones at the back of the line will have to wait for a cargo ship. After the hour-long ferry journey, the campers will board and tentatively balance their tents, sleeping bags, snorkeling gear, food coolers and boogie boards onto a little golf cart. With the wind in their hair, they drive on small windy roads over and across the green hills of the small island, past the tiny landing strip and small town. All equipment will be unloaded, carried past food shacks selling fried fish and plantains, past rudimentary toilets and open showers, and down a sandy track past tents under shady trees on one side and beach shrubs on the other. When a spot is finally found and the tent is pitched, the water supplies are already over, and the entire operation has taken nine hours.

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The rewards for said travellers are found through the shrubs, on to the most exquisite beach that no photo can do justice to. The sand is cream in the bright sunshine, and silky and fine under the feet. Turquoise water, blue sky, reefs for snorkeling, surrounded by green, rolling hills, it ticks the Caribbean beach boxes. But even more magical are the white butterflies that dance over the water in pairs, and the shooting stars across the sky at night. On Playa Flamenco, I met wonderful souls, I was still and pensive, light and unburdened. It is a memory to treasure.

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