E-/audiobook reviews: Non-fiction, by Charmaine Chan
An Innocent Abroad
edited by Don George
Editor Don George may have been surprised by the willingness of some of the authors in this collection to contribute to the volume. Others won’t be: travel writing can be such a joy to produce and consume, allowing you to revisit adventures and, for the reader, to step vicariously into the voyager’s shoes. Joining Tony Wheeler, cofounder of Lonely Planet, are Jan Morris, Pico Iyer, Simon Winchester and up-and-coming literary stars. All 35 writers were attracted to the alluring premise of the innocent abroad, although not all tell Dave Eggers’ tale of doing research in a nightclub-brothel in Bangkok. Other yarns are not as obvious. As George puts it: “I believed that innocence was something you lost once, never to be regained.” But, he lost it time and again, which is probably the experience of many authors here. Alexander McCall Smith’s account of his close encounter with murder in Swaziland is particularly enjoyable. While that story is satisfying in its length, the vignette is the chosen style of several writers. Still, there’s enough in this collection to make armchair travellers of us all.
Without You, There is No Us
by Suki Kim
Several chapters into this book, you wonder whether Suki Kim will have enough content to sustain the curiosity of readers keen to find out more about North Korea. She does. Based on a five-month teaching stint at a Pyongyang university in 2011, her memoir reveals the thinking of students she met; what she saw at the school and on organised excursions; and explains how exhausting it was always to be on guard. She and fellow teachers agonised about how to answer questions asked by students ("Why do people pay tax?") and struggled to understand whether years of brainwashing had rendered some of the students "insane" or if they were so terrified of their leader they had to lie about his greatness. Being surrounded by his portrait, she writes, it did seem "he was always with us". Kim describes emaciated people with dead eyes, and adds that "being in North Korea was profoundly depressing", explaining how sealed borders could be found everywhere, including in people's hearts, blocking their past and choking their future.
by Anthony Flint
(read by Mel Foster)
Even if you're among Le Corbusier's detractors and believe his vision of urban living not suited for humans, you should read Anthony Flint's biography of the "man with a plan". The volume is a reminder of why Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris was such a pioneer, why we are still talking about him almost 50 years after his death, and why visitors continue to make the pilgrimage to his Villa Savoye on the outskirts of Paris, his chapel at Ronchamp (a crab shell inspired the roof), or, indeed, his Unité d'Habitation, a postwar building in Marseilles designed to provide low-cost housing that some critics argued would cause mental illness. Modernists will enjoy reading about Corbusier's design sensibilities - unadorned concrete facades and concrete pilotis among them - and appreciate a tour of some of the 78 buildings he designed in 12 countries. Narrated by Mel Foster at a brisk pace, the book touches on Corbusier's private life and underscores the reasons he was the first of the so-called starchitects. Flint presents a balanced portrait of his protagonist by weighing up the pros and cons of his legacy.