Monthly Archives: October 2012

Vietnam (Graham Greene)

The traveller / writer who accompanied me to Vietnam this year was Graham Greene; I read The Quiet American (1955) in Hanoi. Greene’s powerful novel about the war in Vietnam, set in the period of the French recolonization efforts against the Viet Minh,  was the perfect book to read on this trip. He wrote from experience as a war correspondent, and this ‘fictional reportage’ makes compelling reading.

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Library of the Month (Hue University)

Many thanks to my colleague, Helen, who has been working in Vietnam this month:

Hue is a lovely small city in central Vietnam, on the banks of the Perfume River. It was the imperial city during the Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945) and is famous for the gorgeous Hue style food that emanated from that period.

Hue also has a stong history of providing higher education and today the Hue University has a wonderful central library known as the LRC (Learning Resource Center). It was built in 2001 with funding from Atlantic Philanthropies, who also built 3 other LRCs in Vietnam. The Hue LRC is a light and airy four storey building with plenty of work desks and PCs, and group study and audiovisual facilities. They have a range of print and electronic resources and of particular note are the excellent training, seminar and conference rooms. But the best thing about this LRC are the librarians. While I was working there recently I found them highly skilled, very professional and really motivated to create the best services possible for their staff and students.

See their website here:

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Setting the scene (Crime Fiction)

Crime fiction is well-known for its contribution to the literature of place. Think of your favourite writer, and you will almost invariably link their work to a particular setting, whether it’s Donna Leon’s Venice, Peter Temple’s Victorian country towns or Sara Paretsky’s Chicago. Crime and geography seem to often go hand in hand.

The night air was thick and damp. As I drove south along Lake Michigan, I could smell rotting alewives like a faint perfume on the heavy air. Little fires shone here and there from late-night barbecues in the park. On the water a host of green and red running lights showed people seeking relief from the sultry air. On shore traffic was heavy, the city moving restlessly, trying to breathe. It was July in Chicago.

Sara Paretsky, Indemnity Only

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Travel Writing

Truly evocative writing about place, travel writing is a genre that developed mainly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Earlier travel records can be singled out by their rarity: Herodotus, Marco Polo, Sir John Mandeville. ( Note that all of these authors were accused, at one time or another, of telling lies and tall tales.) The 16th century was characterized by histories of exploration and navigation, and the 19th century was, famously, the time of The Grand Tour.

Twentieth-century travel writers are inclined to be more individualistic, given to scoping out unique (and sometimes very obscure) areas of special interest. Tony Hawks travelled around Ireland with a fridge, and Richard Holmes hiked through the Cevennes, following in the footsteps of Robert Louis Stevenson and his donkey, Modestine. Bill Bryson’s travel writing is known for his humour as much as it is for his descriptions of places; for a sample of his wicked wit, see his comments on the tacky tourist shops in Hamburg. Tim Moore is also one of the most entertaining travel writers that you could hope to read: for  his latest book, he goes out of his way to visit  the most boring places in Britain…

Often the best travel writers are literary authors who move into travel writing, sharing their experiences of a particular culture, country or city. I’m thinking of wonderful books like John Banville’s Prague, poet Patricia Storace’s Greece and novelist Francine Prose’s Sicily. All strongly recommended for armchair travel, or to take with you when you visit these places!

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Athens (The House on Paradise Street)

Sofka Zinovieff’s first novel, published in 2012, is remarkable for its evocation of place.  The setting is the city of Athens, in two separate timeframes: 1942 and 2008. The protagonist, Antigone Perifanis, is a young woman when her country is riven by the second World War and then the terrible Greek Civil War; her decision to become a fighter in the resistance movement eventually leads to her exile from Greece. In 2008, she returns to Athens- to attend her son’s funeral, to meet his widow and children and to make her peace with the family that rejected her sixty years ago.

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South of France (Bonjour Tristesse)

I have an image of the South of France in my head: warm, ochre-coloured sand; palm trees; blue sea sparkling like champagne. It’s a picture that’s partly real – we have had holidays at Antibes and Menton – but also imaginary. When I was seventeen, I read Françoise Sagan’s novella Bonjour Tristesse,  and I’ve had a romanticised view of the south of France locked in my mind since then.

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Savannah (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil)

John Berendt’s brilliantly successful book about Savannah is a pure pleasure to read. Published in 1995, it rapidly became a best-seller – in spite of the fact that no-one was sure how to categorize it. On the back of my dog-eared Vintage paperback copy, it’s described, rather bizarrely, as ‘Travel / Crime.’ It’s certainly a masterwork of  ‘creative non-fiction’, that ambiguous-sounding term that describes non-fiction written with fictional techniques and creative flair.

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