Notes on ‘And The Mountains Echoed’ and ‘On The Noodle Road’

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Well, friends (for so I choose to call you, despite a. not knowing if anyone reads my blog and b. not knowing who it is that reads my blog) I’m back from vacation and deep in the throes of post-travel blues.

I think I managed to do quite decently by my reading list, finishing two and a half books out of five.

And the Mountains Echoed was the first one. I read it through the first leg of the trip and the last few pages saw me sobbing quietly in our tiny hotel room on our last night in Taipei, to my boyfriend’s great astonishment. While nothing compares to the emotional wringer that The Kite Runner puts you through, And the Mountains Echoed has one or two moments of total and extreme sorrow. The format of the book quite surprised me, since I actually had not read any reviews on it before I began reading it. Told in a series of vignettes that span decades in time and are loosely connected through the characters, the overall arc of the novel is the story of Pari and Abdullah, an Afghan brother and sister who share an unusually close bond and are separated at an early age. I admired the artistry with which Hosseini jumped through time, the deftness with which he revealed to the reader the story of character A by telling the story of character B. And most of all, I was utterly gripped by how he prefaced the book with a father telling his son a folk tale about a div, a giant in Afghan folklore. He somehow has a way of making you bleed for his characters. Or sob in a Taipei hotel room.

Next I read On the Noodle Road, while consuming large quantities of barbecued galbi and bowls of kimchi and very little noodles at all in Seoul and Busan. To be honest, while I enjoyed the travelogue/cookery-bookery part of this book (Liu traces the old Silk Road route ostensibly to find the origins of noodles), I was decidedly not a fan of the other angle with which she chose to approach her travels ie. as a search for what it ‘means’ to be a wife. I thought it was, plainly speaking, extremely contrived. It felt as if she had been casting about for a way to give her book wider context than travelogue/cookery-bookery, and had suddenly thought, “Hey, I recently got married and have all these privileged first-world conflicts about my identity as an independent woman and my identity as a wife so let’s say I include that in my book and travel through some of the poorest parts of Central Asia and write about whether women there have any of the same conflicts.”

I don’t mean to sound bitchy, but it truly irritated me that Liu, a woman that has every privilege a person could be equipped with — education, career, love, brains, connections — came across as (there’s no other way to describe it) whiny. She and her husband complain about traveling too much — understandable if you’re traveling across Turkmenistan, less so if you’re traveling through Italy eating vast quantities of pasta or, get this, being hosted for free in a luxury resort in Turkey. Her biggest marriage issue seems to be that her husband loves hiking and isn’t as interested in food as she is (my brain actively went: so the fuck what?). I mean seriously? Seriously? When she began debating the merits of having her husband co-manage her cooking school with her or following him round the globe in his potential future as a diplomat (she worries about being a ‘trailing spouse’) I all but hurled my Kindle (but didn’t because I love it so) across the room. Please.

Liu makes a huge deal about how she’s trying to sort out her identity as an independent woman and writer now that she’s a wife, when there is absolutely no indication that she needs to — that the circumstances of her lifestyle (privileged) or her husband (depicted as patient and loving) have demanded that she do so. This annoys me considering how many women there are out there whose circumstances actually do demand this kind of soul-searching — or worse, the other countless women who do not even have the option of asking questions like these.

I was also inordinately annoyed by Liu’s describing barbecue sauce as one of the ingredients in jian bing. This is so wrong I underlined it three times and added three exclamation marks. A jian bing is a sort of savory crepe-like pancake served on the streets in Beijing. It certainly does not have barbecue sauce — I think what Liu meant was bean paste.

Don’t get me wrong. The book is still worth a read if only because the places Liu travels through are very interesting, she does write extremely well about food, and her connections in the cooking world land her some great experiences. But as for the rest? It’s just whiny.

In other news, I also managed to read a few stories from the O. Henry collection. Have yet to process them though, and halfway through I decided to start reading Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells instead. I’ve finished it already and let me just say that gaslamp fantasy is my new obsession. I’m planning to spend this fall reading everything gaslamp fantasy I can get my hands on.

Writing this post has been a brief respite from my hitherto unrelenting post-travel blues. To put it plainly, I don’t want to be here. I want to be planning and packing and departing (in the going somewhere sense of the word, not the dying sense). But here I’ll be for the next few months, months that will prove to be life-changing simply because life-changing decisions have already been put into motion.

Sigh. At least reading is always a constant.

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