As locales go, Alaska and Myanmar are worlds apart — or at least half a world apart — but two books that I recently read, one fiction and the other a memoir, evoked similar senses of adventure and delight. Over the hills and far away, travelling to distant lands and discovering different ways of life and love.
The first book I read was Light and Silence: Growing Up in My Mother’s Alaska by Janet Brown. Janet is actually a good friend of mine and she lived in Bangkok for many years before moving back to the USA to be closer to her two adult sons in Seattle. So, yeah, maybe I’m biased, but friend or not, I can’t help but be very impressed with this book. There is no denying the fact that Janet is a very talented writer, one who knows her craft and can vividly describe a setting. In this book she deftly relates her experiences of growing up in rural Alaska, a place that was “still locked in the nineteenth century.”
Basically, this book is a tribute to Janet’s mother who passed away a couple of years ago. Her mother had not wanted a memorial service or legions of mourners gathered by her grave, so this book became Janet’s way to “honor and remember her in a form that would have pleased her.” Indeed, the love of reading books was one of the strong bonds between mother and daughter, and you feel that closeness throughout this moving book. On the back cover Janet describes her mother as “a woman with persistent optimism in a life that was studded with tragedy, this New Yorker with eccentric dreams had the courage to build a life for herself and her family in a place that was truly wilderness, a domain of wind, grass, and trees. The daily life she lived was difficult, but it was her own. She chose it all, she crafted it, and she savored it.”
Not only does Janet offer a glimpse of her mother’s non-traditional life, she takes the reader into the heart of the beautiful and sometimes cruel geography of rural Alaska. Growing up on this “last frontier”, Janet and her mother— and so many others — were deprived of things that us city dwellers take for granted, yet you never sense that she felt deprived or cheated. Instead, as she writes, this remote setting “was simply a launching pad for new exploration.”
Janet Brown is also the author of several other books published by Things Asian Press, including Tone Deaf in Bangkok and Almost Home, both of those also excellent reads.
The other book that I just finished this week was The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker. This novel has floated in and out of my bookshop numerous times over the past few years, but until my friend Myriam recommended it to me recently I had never bothered to read the blurb on the back cover, which would have informed me that the story was set in Myanmar! Not only that, most of the story takes place in the Shan State town of Kalaw, just down the road from usual haunts in Nyaungshwe.
Once again, I may be a bit biased in my take on this book, but honestly, this was one of the most memorable and moving novels that I’ve read in a long, long time. Many reviews described this as a love story, and there is no denying that romance plays a big part in the plot, but this book is also a bit of a mystery, as well as an insightful look into Burmese society and its traditions and customs. The author (or at least the translator: this was originally written in German) does a fine job of describing the town of Kalaw, from its teashops and homes to its monasteries and surrounding mountains. Close your eyes and you can hear and smell and feel so many different things. Indeed, the ability to utilize — and appreciate — different senses (especially the part about “hearing heartbeats” from the book’s title) is a major theme of this novel.
Elements of the plot, especially one facet of the story’s ending, can occasionally be baffling or frustratingly predictable, but even those parts are so well written that they border on the poetic. To call this book magical and inspirational would not be an understatement, or a cliché. The Art of Hearing Heartbeats is a very special novel.
One reason I had never paid much attention to this book previously was due to the relatively bland front cover. Well, maybe bland isn’t the best description, but nevertheless there was nothing particularly Burmese about the artwork. I don’t care what they say, you CAN judge a book by its cover, or at least pay more attention to it. Imagine my surprise, and delight, when I did an online search and discovered that the book has been reprinted with several different new covers, ones with more of a Burmese theme! The downside is that one cover shows the temples of Bagan, while another depicts the famous U Bein Bridge in Amarapura, neither place of which is remotely near Shan State! Nevertheless, if one of those striking new covers had appeared in my shop, I would have picked up this book a lot sooner than I did.