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Archive for October 2015

Reading ‘The Mask of Apollo’ in the Myeik Archipelago

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The book: The Mask of Apollo, Mary Renault

The place: Myeik Archipelago, Myanmar


(Not pictured: millions of invisible stinging things in the sea that have me covered in painful welts. Small disadvantage of somewhere that is otherwise an untrammelled delight.)


Oh, hello there. Why yes, I am on holiday somewhere utterly blissful, thank you so much for noticing! I’ve been in Myanmar for a few days now, poking about up north in Bagan and Mandalay; I came south yesterday, and to the islands today. There is always a slight feeling of trepidation when coming to somewhere overtly resort-y as a singulon, fearing the Weirdo Loner stigma, but should fear of said stigma stop one from coming to one of the most beautiful places on earth for a few days of reading and diving and looking at the sea? It should not. And indeed of course now that I am here it is totally fine, and I actually leaped for joy on checking into my beachfront bamboo cabin. Good choice, self. Very good choice.

I’ve never travelled much in South East Asia, and what travel I have done in the region was quite a long time ago now, so one of the joys of this trip has been spending time somewhere that feels palpably foreign, culturally and socially and politically, from the sorts of places where I normally am. Through sheer dumb luck, I’ve timed this visit very well: it was the Thadingnyut Festival last week, which involves fireworks and families illuminating their homes with thousands of candles – and next Sunday, 8 November, is the election. Almost everyone I’ve spoken to is a staunch supporter of ‘The Lady’ and her party, and I’ve been assured by many people that if the Generals’ party wins, they will have stolen the election. However this morning on the way to the quay in Kawthaung there was a neat line of green-clad demonstrators waving flags in support of the government, the first of the kind that I’d seen – the NLP-supporters I’ve spoken to said dismissively that such demonstrators are paid, that no one supports the government but the military and the uneducated, but we’ll see what way the election goes, though it will be difficult to see the objective truth of it.



  • I finished A Little Life a couple of weeks ago, and though there have been books that I’ve thought were better books, and books that I’ve liked and admired more, I don’t think I’ve ever been haunted by a book quite this much. This review in the Guardian sums up pretty much exactly my own thoughts about it.
  • More recently, I read Natasha Pulley’s The Watchmaker of Filigree Street and just adored it. A beautiful, elegant, gentle, lyrical book, the kind that fills the reader with inchoate and semi-pleasurable yearning. (Or perhaps that’s just me.) Highly recommended.


* PA270102
Apparently pouring water over Buddha gives you a long life.


Cliched ‘sunset over Bagan’ shot. As is often the case, it’s a cliche for a reason.

Moonset over the Ayeyarwady…


…and sunrise, ditto.

Had a good chat with these chaps while wandering the streets for Thadingnyut in Mandalay. Not sure if you can tell, but the guy on the right is wearing an NLP sticker on his forehead.

Small child + puppets, Mandalay

Very stern small child in a Mandalay puppet shop.

U Bein Bridge, the longest teak bridge in the world! (Seems a bit of a niche record, but who am I to judge?)


Current location.

Sunset from my bedroom.

Written by Jess

October 31, 2015 at 10:37 am

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Reading ‘A Little Life’ in Freetown

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The book: A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara

The place: Freetown


Every so often, a book comes along that feels as if it’s been beamed into the world directly from my subconscious. The last book I felt this way about was Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, but I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that speaks as directly to my id as A Little Life. That’s not to say it’s the best book I’ve ever read (I think it is very, very good indeed, and although I feel far too emotionally involved to objectively judge its worth, the Man Booker shortlisters agree), or even my favourite book – much of it is so intense and so painful to read that I’m torn between gulping it down convulsively and taking regular breaks to maintain perspective. But it’s not often I feel quite so personally about a book as with this one.


I’ve been in Freetown for about a week and a half, which is humid and damp and finding itself in the (hopefully) post-Ebola world. I’m accustomed enough to countries that have experienced conflict or serious unrest, and so it’s an interesting shift to spend some time in a place that’s recovering from a different kind of crisis (though of course Sierra Leone’s no stranger to conflict, either). I’ve been spending a lot of time in meetings, or holed up working in my hotel room, or eating barracuda carpaccio, which is ubiquitous and delicious and I don’t understand why this is the only place I’ve ever eaten it. I like this city very much indeed.

Written by Jess

October 17, 2015 at 6:00 pm

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Reading ‘Flood of Fire’ in the UK

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The book: Flood of Fire, Amitav Ghosh

The place: Glasgow and London


This is actually a cheat post, written from Freetown where I am reading something else entirely, but I read the bulk of this while in Glasgow and then in London, where I stayed – self-indulgently enough – at the Hilton as a pathetic little treat to myself in the middle of a hard week of travel, and this is the concluding book to a trilogy that I started reading in 2010, so it deserves a post.

I read Sea of Poppies in hardcopy while on holiday in Ethiopia, and then River of Smoke in South Sudan in 2012, so I was eager for this to come out. I have railed before against the sidelining of historical fiction as a genre – for obvious reasons, as it’s a genre I write myself – but I find it incredibly odd that there are some writers who patently write historical fiction that is somehow not considered real historical fiction, presumably because it has literary merit. Hilary Mantel seems to get away with it (she seems often to be cited as the one writer who can rehabilitate historical fiction, which I think is very unfair to the myriad other excellent historical fiction writers out there, though I entirely support Mantel’s divinity, obviously). A couple of years ago Colum McCann vociferously insisted that his novel TransAtlantic was not historical fiction; while I have not actually read TransAtlantic (although it is on my Kindle, as with most other books that have ever been published in English), Wikipedia tells me that “It tells the intertwined stories of Alcock and Brown (the first non-stop transatlantic fliers in 1919), the visit of Frederick Douglass to Ireland in 1845/46, and the story of the Irish peace process as negotiated by Senator George Mitchell in 1998”. So … it’s fiction … set in the past. Do you know what that sounds like to me? THAT SOUNDS LIKE HISTORICAL FICTION.

In any case! All of which is to say that Amitav Ghosh writes excellent historical fiction. One of my favourite things about this trilogy is his use of language: he incorporates enormous amounts of vocabulary from various Indian languages, both in its original form and in its anglicised form, and slips it into the text with nary an explanation or a glossary, and the reader is just expected to pick it up, which they mostly do. I love the cleverness of this: it’s only very rarely that I haven’t been able to understand what Ghosh is talking about from the context, but it doesn’t feel forced or laboured in any way; that level of trust in the intelligence of the reader is, frankly, rather flattering. The other thing that I was particularly struck by in this book – and it’s probably clear in the first two, also, though I don’t remember picking it up – is that it’s a sharp yet subtle indictment of capitalism. The trilogy is set around the First Opium War, which … would it be the first international conflict directly caused by business interests? Avoiding spoilers, the way Ghosh explores this within the lives of his individual characters – one in particular – is very incisive indeed.


And just for the hell of it, here are some photographs of Ethiopia in November 2010, where I was when I read the first in this trilogy.




Lalibela, during some sort of Orthodox Christian festival. Lalibela remains one of the most otherworldly places I have ever visited.


The Simien Mountains outside of Gonder. 


Castle in Gonder. Love how photos like this subvert a lot of Western ideas of what Africa is all about.


Friendly demon wants to give all the sinners a big hug! Monastery on Lake Tana.


Women protesting something, Bahir Dar.


Papyrus boat bringing firewood to sell in the market in Bahir Dar.


On the way to the Blue Nile falls.


…and there they are.

Biimey, that was a good holiday. The photos don’t even scratch the surface of what I managed to pack into eight days; mind you, I had more energy back then.

Written by Jess

October 11, 2015 at 3:07 pm

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